Humans have been eating plants since the dawn of the species, so you might think we know everything about them and their properties by this point. But that’s not the case: There are huge mysteries remaining in the world’s flora. Biotech startup Brightseed is working to unlock that untapped potential.
This week, the company’s cofounder and COO, Sofia Elizondo, joined us on the World Changing Ideas podcast to discuss the mysterious goodness lurking in plants, and how Brightseed is using artificial intelligence to detect it, with the aim of turning it into products that could have positive impacts on human health.
While pharmaceutical companies spend billions of dollars synthesizing artificial compounds, Brightseed’s argument is that we still know so little about natural chemicals, on which humans relied to stay healthy for centuries. “The reason our bodies work the way they do is because we ate what we ate millions of years ago,” Elizondo says. Still, despite intricate innovations in other parts of our lives, these resources have gone largely untapped. “We have space telescopes and missions to Mars,” she says. “[But] we actually don’t know what is inside of plants as much as we think we would.”
That’s where Brightseed’s machine learning tool, dubbed Forager, comes into play: to mine plants and identify the tiny molecules that could prove to be supernutrients. “We use AI to explore the dark matter of the plant kingdom,” Elizondo says. “We can be very specific and pinpoint this natural molecule that has a very potent effect.”
Just as we shouldn’t have to rely only on lab-grown compounds, Brightseed’s theory is that we shouldn’t have to find the most remote crops for impact. “We don’t need to go to exotic plant sources or Amazonian flowers to find compounds that really have an impact,” she says. Rather, they’re right in front of us, in the fruits and vegetables and herbs and spices we know from our kitchens. “Tell me what you have in your pantry, or in the farmers’ market, and that is where we start.”
The startup’s first announced breakthrough came in early 2021, from the “humble spice of black pepper,” in which the team found a small molecule whose properties have the potential to help clear fatty tissue that can complicate liver function. Once the company finds a compound (or “bioactive”), it develops the new discovery into a product that people can use. In the case of the black pepper, Brightseed’s focus now is on putting the compounds through clinical trials to confirm the benefits, finding the best sourcing and extraction methods, and then producing a supplement to sell in stores.
Meanwhile, the mining continues. Elizondo says Brightseed has mined more than 700,000 compounds, and hopes to reach a million by the end of the year (and then a million per year going forward). Big-name partners are also using Brightseed’s AI technology: Danone, for instance, is harnessing it to tap into the benefits of soy.
Regardless of the continual mining, Elizondo estimates that we still know about only 1% of plant composition. The promise is the scope of what’s possible. “This is a source of richness that we just started to tap into.”
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