Biotechnology produces protein 2,000 times sweeter than sugar

Greenlab is developing a new method to extract brazzein, a novel nutritive sweetener that could be poised to shake up the culinary landscape.

Cindy Hazen, Contributing writer

May 22, 2024

3 Min Read
Corn fields at sunset.

At a Glance

  • Brazzein is a sweet protein derived from the berries of the West African oubli plant.
  • Greenlab is working on a method to extract brazzein from corn crops.
  • The company is also developing enzymes that could help break down PFAS in the environment.

Discovered in the berries of the West African oubli plant, brazzein is a protein with a unique, intense sweetening profile. This novel nutritive sweetener could be a game changer for food developers, but supply is challenged because extraction is not economically viable. Although some companies are currently producing it via fermentation, Greenlab sees cornfields as the future source of brazzein.  

“We have partnered with Ginkgo Bioworks to develop advanced techniques to express and accumulate the appropriate form and function of brazzein in corn plants,” Karen Wilson, CEO and co-founder of Greenlab, said. “This collaboration will allow faster decision-making on which proteins and enzymes are attractive full-scale commercial targets for biomanufacturing in corn versus precision fermentation and vice versa.” 

The partnership has developed the capability to scale production via different pathways, thereby opening the door to widescale availability.  

“We're working with Ginkgo in terms of their ability to help us commercially scale being a startup,” Wilson said. “They bring us incredible resources with their commercial production.”  

Precise fermentation is the fastest method. Using this technology, Greenlab predicts it will have a steady supply of brazzein by the end of next year, but that’s not the end goal. Wilson said the longer-term plan is corn. Ginkgo is helping Greenlab accelerate the expression and extraction of brazzein from corn kernels, so acres of corn fields could be cultivated to produce the sweetener. The structure is built using crossbreeding and hybrids, and then proteins, peptides or enzymes are inserted into the corn kernel for expression.  

“Our production facilities can be near or in the corn field,” she said, adding that these facilities can be built for less than the cost of building a fermentation plant. “Plus, it’s highly sustainable. Downstream processes will purify brazzein from both the corn kernel and fermentation broth for use in animal feed, ethanol production and other uses.”  

Brazzein derived from corn should be available in 2026.  

“There's a lot of ways that we can speed up the corn process, but if we're having great success with the fermentation, we'll just go ahead and feed the market with that and continue to try to perfect on the corn side,” Wilson said.  

Brazzein is a soluble protein with a sweetness that is up to 2,000 times greater than sucrose. If produced properly, it’s stable over a wide range of pH (2.5-8) and at up to 80°C for four hours. Described as having a clean flavor without an after taste, it can also decrease the off-flavors of other high intensity sweeteners. 

Greenlab’s technology has other potential uses for food production. Besides brazzein, the company is working with industrial enzymes that are designed to work in remediation of soil and water sources where PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) may be present.  

“A lot of people that we've talked to believe there's going to be a mixture or, as they refer to it, a cocktail of different enzymes that will degrade PFAS," Wilson continued. "One that we're working on actually strips the fluoride from the PFAS molecule and allows our lead enzyme to degrade it. It's an ongoing process that we'll be involved in over years, if not decades.” 

As for brazzein, Greenlab’s product is self-approved GRAS (generally recognized as safe) and currently moving into pilot stages.

About the Author(s)

Cindy Hazen

Contributing writer

Cindy Hazen has more than 25 years of experience developing seasonings, dry blends, beverages and more. Today, when not writing or consulting, she expands her knowledge of food safety as a food safety officer for a Memphis-based produce distributor.

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