There are many things to be written about Evolva.
From the company’s trademark technology which allows high throughput analysis of well, everything, to their stevia-like components it is clear their action span is quite phenomenal. Their products cover five lines: Nutrition, Personal Care, Flavors & Fragrances, Agriculture and Legacy products. The common theme? Following the company’s mission, they are all innovative, high-value, sustainable ingredients, with an emphasis on health, wellness and nutrition.
So how exactly does a Company that is developing high-profile products like fermentation-derived stevia and advertises itself as “a specialist brewer for the 21st century” now aim to join the fight against Zika virus? With perhaps the most interesting development of Evolva’s recent history: a compound called Nootkatone, which Evolva was already developing in collaboration with the US Centers for Disease Control for the control of biting pests. In late March, Evolva announced that it is expanding its current work with the CDC to research nootkatone’s effectiveness in tick-control to include an additional focus on mosquitoes, including those that transmit Zika, chikungunya, dengue, and West Nile viruses. CDC research has already shown nootkatone both repels and kills the yellow fever mosquito, Aedes aegypti, and the black-legged tick, Ixodes scapularis which transmits Lyme disease.
Nootkatone: what it is and what it could do
Nootkatone can be extracted in minute quantities from the skin of grapefruit or the bark of the Alaska yellow cedar. This same tree is also known as the Nootka cypress, hence the name, “nootkatone”. Nootkatone can also be produced on an industrial scale from brewing via yeast fermentation. It is already approved around the world as a flavour and fragrance: in other words, it’s safe to eat and safe to put on your skin.
Nootkatone, it turns out, might actually have a far more important use—against some of the most problematic arthropod vectors of human pathogens on the planet, including Ixodes tick vectors of Lyme disease and Aedes mosquito vectors of chikungunya, dengue, and Zika viruses. Zika has been getting all the headlines lately, but dengue impacts millions every year and kills hundreds of thousands. Nootkatone also appears to work in a way that is distinct from that of currently used pesticides, so the hope is that it could potentially be valuable for mitigating pesticide resistance in mosquito vectors.
Evolva has been doing the necessary safety and efficacy studies to get Nootkatone approved by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) initially as a repellent against the blacklegged tick, mosquitoes and other target insects in the USA. Evolva is also looking at the commercial applications elsewhere in other geographies.
Evolva started looking more closely at nootkatone’s ability to repel and kill the Aedes aegypti mosquito, the main mosquito vector responsible for the spread of Zika virus, when the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Zika virus a global public health emergency. Preliminary studies on nootktatone have already been conducted in the US and Europe. Evolva says that further confirmatory studies will soon be underway in the US.
“Nootkatone is one of Evolva’s most exciting products,” Evolva CEO Neil Goldsmith said last year when they first launched it into the flavour and fragrance market. “Since we are committed to improving public health through better functional ingredients, we are doing our part to ensure that nootkatone reaches its full potential—responsibly, but expeditiously.”
From brewing to combinatorial genetics
Evolva prides itself in their proprietary brewing technologies, which allows them to generate highly efficient yeast strains through a deeply iterative scaling process, making it possible to scale their production starting with one to ten liter test runs and reaching even 500.000 liter commercial fermenters in the most effective way possible.
But the fun part is probably the yeast itself. Through combinatorial genetics, Evolva is able to create billions of different yeast cells that express multiple new gene combinations. These new strains can be analyzed with function-led high throughput systems that identify the combinations that optimize the biosynthesis of a certain target ingredient. Function-led screening can also be used to find new functionalities for food ingredients, for example potential utility against cancer and infectious diseases. Structure-led screening can also be performed by combining ultra-high performance liquid chromatography, time-of-flight mass spectroscopy, NMR and informatics. This combination enables Evolva to elaborate production pathways for known ingredients, which are then ready to undergo the company’s one step pathway optimization process through rapid assembly of multi-step biosynthetic pathways.
Nature and technology working as one
It is nice to know that all this infrastructure is not being used solely to produce high-value products and then cash checks. The company believes in responsible innovation, and makes sure its products generate a positive impact in the lives of most people. For example, as their website points out, by making Stevia taste better they allow a large number of people to reduce the level of sugar in their diet.
When selecting which ingredients to focus on, they keep three main points in mind: Scarcity and cost issues, high price and fundamental properties. This perspective allows them to choose ingredients that are currently being overharvested, or are prone to fraudulent imitations, and which are sold at prohibitive costs to people who can benefit from them. By researching these target’s properties, they can also find ways to use them in new areas, use them in a better way in old ones, and avoid them in areas where they should not be
Nootkatone as a likely defense against Zika is a great example of this conscious approach to improving on what nature has given us with a synthetic biology twist.