Science Stories
All Natural Colour
Phytolon, a start-up based on Weizmann Institute technology, aims to replace artificial food dyes with safe, cost-effective, stable, all-natural colors

Like bees to flowers or bears to ripe fruit, we are first attracted to food by its color. That is why everything from soft drinks to cheese contain added color – much of it still artificial despite the known health risks. A new start-up, using technology developed at the Weizmann Institute of Science, is developing a novel kind of natural food dye that will compete with the artificial dyes in price, stability and range of hues.

The start-up ‒ Phytolon ‒ is now working on scaling up the production of plant pigments called betalains. Betalains are best known for the deep color of beets and the bright ones of bougainvillea, but they come in shades from dark purple to yellow. Betalains are rare compared to other plant pigments, however, and they had not, until now, been well studied. Prof. Asaph Aharoni and his group in the Institute’s Plant and Environmental Sciences Department several years ago applied advanced genomic techniques they had developed for mapping out the specific genes controlling the metabolic pathway leading to betalain production. They then created genetically engineered yeast that not only produces betalains, but secretes them in quantity.

Yeda Research and Development, the technology transfer arm of the Weizmann Institute of Science, recently signed a licensing agreement with the Trendlines group to give Phytolon the exclusive rights to this technology. Trendlines invested in Phytolon through an Israeli incubator that is government-supported through the Israel Innovation Authority.

Dr. Halim Jubran, the company’s CEO, was recently interviewed in FoodNavigator-USA, where he explained that, unlike beet extract, which contains a low percentage of betalains and a beet aftertaste, or other cell-based products that may be hard to extract from the cells, the yeast-grown betalains are quite pure: “The yeast cells actually secrete the betalains like sweat…it makes everything cheaper and more reliable. The yeast is not part of the product.”

Trendlines is publicly traded on the Singapore stock market and in the US. It discovers, invests in and incubates agricultural- and medical-based technologies; in Israel it works through two incubators, and it supports an incubator in Singapore, as well.

Prof. Asaph Aharoni’s research is supported by the Vera and John Schwartz Family Center for Metabolic Biology; the Benoziyo Endowment Fund for the Advancement of Science; the Y. Leon Benoziyo Institute for Molecular Medicine; the Henry Chanoch Krenter Institute for Biomedical Imaging and Genomics; the Mary and Tom Beck-Canadian Center for Alternative Energy Research; the Tom and Sondra Rykoff Family Foundation; David E. and Sheri Stone; Dana and Yossie Hollander; the Sklare Family Foundation Cannabis Research Fund; the Yotam Project; the estate of Helen Nichunsky; and the estate of Emile Mimran. Prof. Aharoni is the recipient of the André Deloro Prize and he is the incumbent of the Peter J. Cohn Professorial Chair.

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