Science of spuds
ROCKWELL CITY – This is a unique farm cropping story, with a pair of unique farmers.
Bill and Joe Horan, of rural Rockwell City, the principals of Horan Bioproducts, are growing 2 acres of potatoes that have been infused with human RNA.
It sounds creepy, but the spuds are not for the food chain.
As Bill Horan explains it, “We’re tricking the potatoes to be a manufacturing facility.”
But manufacturing what?
According to the Horans, plus their operations manager, Dave Anderson, this is the only U.S. farm with a permit for transgenic farming. The potatoes, once harvested, are isolated and sent for processing.
The RNA they contain produce an antibacterial protein identical to what human skin produces that, when extracted, will be used for topical skin treatments, including ointments, sun screen, lipstick and makeup.
This infusion is not to be confused with using DNA.
DNA – deoxyribonucleic acid – contains the genetic material of encoded hereditary characteristics.
RNA – ribonucleic acid – translates the genetic material stored in DNA into protein structures. RNA essentially carries out the instructions of DNA.
The Horans received a three-year permit last year to grow their first crop of these potatoes, a plot of two-tenths of an acre.
This year, they received another permit to grow the larger plot.
Horan said the highly regulated process, inspected seven times during the growing season by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, requires that the soil that grows the potatoes must lay idle the next two years to be certain there are no volunteer plants that come up.
“It’s called an unapproved biologic,” Horan said.
It’s not as scary as it sounds.
“Round-up Ready corn and soybeans had the same designation before they became available for retail,” he said. “But unlike corn and soybeans these plants will never be approved for food.”
This is the 13th year the brothers have been involved in transgenic farming.
They’ve grown RNA-infused corn for a French company that multiplied lypase from canine pancreases, which is used to treat and extend the lives of cystic fibrosis patients by allowing them to digest fat.
They’ve grown transgenic safflower, barley and dry land rice, all with medicinal end uses, including one to boost immune systems of chemotherapy patients.
“It’s cheaper to produce drugs in plants,” Horan said, “than in stainless steel bioreactors.
“Plants will replicate the proteins without mutating.”
The Horans said they expect this will be the future for drug production, since so many are protein-based.
They are growing the crop for an unnamed German company, Bill Horan said. The protein to be extracted is also kept confidential, because of the competition among drug companies for transgenic farming is intense.
All of the work the Horans have done so far has been for European companies.
“European biotech,” Bill Horan said, “can’t go outside on that continent.
“So they come to the U.S.”
Wrote the protocol
The Horans, in conjunction with APHIS, wrote the protocols for growing transgenic plants.
The regulations are extensive. In short, everything that happens in the plot, stays in the plot.
That includes all soil from clothes, boots, tractor tires – everything.
The plot is fenced, electrified and posted to keep all unauthorized people out.
They have to scout weekly and document all they see going on in the plot, whether insects and diseases; or even what they don’t see, such as animal tracks.
In addition, there can be no potatoes being grown for a mile radius around the Horan farm, even in private gardens.
“We don’t have a lot of neighbors close by,” Joe Horan said, “but it would cost less to buy potatoes for someone to discourage them from planting any.”
Just about everything done in the plot, Horan said, “has to have an inspector present.”
However, the brothers and Anderson can manage the plot by themselves – weeding, cultivating, spraying.
Last year, they had students from the Manson FFA Chapter assisting with hand-harvesting 40,000 potatoes. An inspector was present.
The spuds were stored in a climate-controlled, regulated, USDA-certified storage unit on the farm.
Bill Horan said the students were given a presentation by the chief executive officer of the German company of how the potatoes would be processed and the proteins used.
“The students were fascinated,” Horan said. “Perhaps it may lead one or two into this type of farming.”
New revenue stream?
“We want to develop this business,” Horan said, “so a lot of farmers can do this.”
The permit process takes upward to a year, he said. They must go through a training and certification process.
“Permits and inspections are exact,” Joe Horan said. “And they have to be.
“The last thing anyone wants is a surprise.”
Bill Horan said the potatoes were delivered with the RNA infused. All the Horans had to do was plant them.
“All we are doing is multiplying the protein,” he said. “It has a huge potential if it can give more protection on your skin.”
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