Somewhere near Paso Robles, John Howard and his team will be harvesting corn for the next few weeks. The exact location of the field is confidential, because they worry “eco-terrorists” might vandalize their stuff.
It’s not just any old corn – it’s been genetically modified to manufacture its own trypsin, an enzyme many animals produce to help digest protein. Howard and his lab staff grind down and process the kernels into a powder. The resulting product, TrypZean, resembles cocaine more than corn.
TrypZean is meant to be a plant-based substitute for trypsin. Howard says his animal-free, synthetic product has the potential to replace trypsin, an ingredient used to activate or inactivate viruses in vaccines. It’s also used in insulin and other medical products.
“The FDA would like the pharmaceutical industry to move away from animals, so they don’t bring in viral contaminants,” he says.
Howard and his San Luis Obispo-based company, Applied Biotechnology Institute (ABI), have been developing TrypZean for about 20 years. The company’s other products include corn-generated brazzein, a super-sweet protein that can be used in food and drinks.
“We’re at the stage now where we’re hoping to start selling a product and making money,” Howard says. “We want to get to production.”
He’s banking on the next phase happening in South County. Howard presented TrypZean to the county Agricultural Advisory Committee July 23, then bought a piece of ag land near Lockwood, where he anticipates growing about 20 acres of the genetically modified (GM) corn.
“The land is too expensive to grow regular corn,” Howard says. “Our crop is a little more valuable, so we’re hoping to be able to handle the extra expense. And this also keeps it out of the corn belt.”
There’s little to no corn grown commercially in Monterey County, and corn pollen doesn’t travel very far, Assistant Agricultural Commissioner Bob Roach says. That reassures him that there’s virtually no risk of cross-contamination – the GM corn breeding with non-GM varieties, spreading the modified genes beyond the field.
“There are no wild plants that could be cross-pollinated by corn, and no one’s growing any corn around here,” Roach says. “This project is well suited to be the first commercial planting of a bio-engineered plant in Monterey County. There’s very little risk of any kind of harm. It’s a non-food crop that’s producing a valuable substance.”
Howard envisions the South County property as a beta-testing site as ABI scales up over the next five years. “It’s a little larger-scale than we can do [in San Luis Obispo], because there’s more land,” he says. He hopes to repurpose an existing building on the South County land as a lab.
ABI wouldn’t need any local regulatory approvals to grow its GM corn. Two federal agencies deal with genetically modified organisms, or GMOs: the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which does farm inspections, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates pharmaceutical products.
The company would need a permit from the county Ag Commissioner’s Office to use pesticides, but it wouldn’t get special treatment.
“He’s growing corn,” Roach says. “You don’t need a permit to grow corn.”