An East of England startup is bidding to turn the humble tomato into the source of new cosmetic products and even potential healthcare applications.
The technology will be commercialised by Professor Cathie Martin and Dr Eugenio Butelli from the John Innes Centre, who have now launched their new biotech company, Persephone Bio Ltd.
Named BBSRC's Most Promising Innovators 2014, the duo formed the business on the back of BBSRC-funded research which modified tomatoes to produce high levels of useful compounds.
Named after the Greek goddess of vegetation, Persephone Bio Ltd will use biotechnology to manufacture sought-after bioactive ingredients for the cosmetics industry.
Tomato extracts are new to skincare products, but Professor Martin and Dr Butelli believe their ingredients will be very attractive to the cosmetics industry.
With further research it is also hoped that tomatoes could become natural factories for not only cosmetic ingredients, but also therapeutic ingredients to treat skin conditions or promote wound healing.
The company will make use of the state-of-the art facilities in the new BBSRC-funded Centrum building at Norwich Research Park, which houses office, lab and interaction space. The facilities support the translation of publicly funded scientific research into commercial applications.
Plant compounds are widely used in cosmetic products but they can be expensive because plants produce small amounts and they are difficult to extract, requiring harsh chemical treatments.
In the course of her award-winning research, Professor Martin has developed several varieties of fruits – including tomatoes and oranges – containing high levels of useful plant products.
The research is now being taken out of the lab using funds from their Innovator of the Year prize to help create an economy-boosting commercial enterprise.
Professor Martin said: "Tomatoes grown for food contain small amounts of cosmetically useful products, such as flavonols and isoflavones, so we have developed varieties that contain much higher levels of these and related compounds that absorb ultra-violet light and protect plants against damage from the sun.
“We've also created a 'chemical-free' commercial-scale system to extract the ingredients directly from cold-pressed tomato juice.”