Photo: Joachim Rode

From the University of Copenhagen to DTU with a load of moss

Wednesday 20 Apr 16

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Henrik Toft Simonsen
Associate Professor
DTU Bioengineering

Mosspiration Biotech

In addition to his reasearch, Henrik Toft Simonsen holds several patents, and he has recently teamed up with Hansol Bae to found the company Mosspiration Biotech IVS, where they will be producing aromas and flavourings for industrial use.

Physcomitrella patens is not just a small, bashful plant that principally grows in Central Europe. It is also the launchpad for Henrik Toft Simonsen’s green cell factories.

The practice of cultivating nature’s active agents in fungus and yeast cells is well-known at DTU. The Eukaryotic Biotechnology section at DTU Systems Biology is highly skilled in this field, where Professor Uffe Hasbro Mortensen uses mould fungi to generate natural substances with the capacity to combat cancer, for example.

From his base at the former Danish Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University (KVL) in Frederiksberg Associate Professor Henrik Toft Simonsen has been working closely with DTU researchers for years. He is working on stimulating a special type of moss to produce aromatic and medicinal agents and has now moved his entire team—and their funding—to Lyngby, laying the foundations for even greater synergy between the two groups of researchers.

Henrik Toft Simonsen started the next chapter of his career at DTU on 1 January this year.

“I’m also expecting great things of the equipment here, particularly the fermentor platform, which we can use to control the flows of gas and acid much more accurately than we could at the Frederiksberg facility. So I’m really looking forward to testing whether we can get our moss plants to grow as quickly as I imagine.”

Moss as a cell factory
In the same way as human beings have an immune system to defend themselves against microorganisms, the plants produce a range of natural substances to keep them safe in a world full of hazards and threats. Such substances include aromas that send signals to insects, or poisonous bitter substances that protect them from diseases.

Both are of interest to us as human beings, but it is often problematic to access these substances in the volumes we require. The plant itself may not be particularly common, and it may be difficult to grow it in controlled conditions. Chemical synthesis is a viable but often expensive option. The alternative is to stimulate other organisms to produce the required substance by moving the genes that control formation of the substance in the plant into them. Yeast and fungi are commonly used as cell factories, but plants can also fulfil the role, as Henrik Toft Simonsen has proved.

“Physcomitrella patens is a remarkably suitable plant because it has a short life cycle, it’s easy to cultivate, and it readily accepts genes from other plants,” he explains.

“We’ve copied technologies from yeast and fungi and transferred them to moss. And now we’ve made a start on producing all kinds of natural substances, especially in what are known as ‘terpenoids’. There are thousands of them: aromas suitable for use in industry, and bitters with a pharmacological effect. For example, we have succeeded in making moss plants generate artemisinin, which is effective against malaria.”

Partnership with industry
Henrik Toft Simonsen has been working with mosses since 2008 and has built up partnerships with a number of companies in France, Germany, Switzerland, and the United States centred on developing mosses that produce molecules for flavourings, aromas, and medicines. On account of this focus on production and partnership with industry, it made perfect sense to transfer to DTU, he says.