Early in December a small agricultural biotechnology company announced that it had patented a technique for producing "real" vanilla extract in factories. The announcement, made with little fanfare, may turn out to have been one of 1991's bigger news stories.
The new vanilla extract, when it reaches the supermarket shelves, will be the first food produced by cell culture, an approach that some experts believe will become an important alternative source of food and fiber.
A cell culture grows the usable products of a plant -- in this case, vanilla -- without growing the whole plant.
At the present time, vanilla extract is either produced in the traditional way -- out of beans hand-picked from the vanilla orchid which grows in a few tropical regions such as the island of Madagascar -- or it is chemically synthesized from wood by-products.
Unless you are a very discriminating (and well-to-do) chef, the vanilla extract in your kitchen is probably the synthetic variety, which costs about $7 a pound.
Although real vanilla extract is hideously expensive -- around $1,200 a pound -- there is a considerable global demand for it because of its much richer taste. It contains more than 100 flavor components compared to the one -- vanillin --in artificial vanilla.
Scientists at Escagenetics, the California company that has taken out a patent on the new cell culture process, say they can produce a vanilla flavoring for under $200 a pound that is virtually identical to the real stuff. Although the cells from which it is made are grown in a fermentation vat instead of on a plant in a tropical forest, the extract produced from them has nearly all the flavor components.
Plant cell culture comes under the general heading of biotechnology, but it has little in common with the controversial recombinant DNA technology. It's not a matter of creating TTC something new, but of growing some part of a plant without growing the whole tree, bush or whatever.
The process involves taking a small piece of a plant, culturing it into a growth of undifferentiated cells called a callus, then inducing the callus to produce the desired product.
The technology is a matter of finding just the right combination of enzymes and nutrients. Mass production is done in a fermentation stage more or less similar to the way yeast and bacteria are grown.
Researchers have been tinkering with plant cell cultures in the laboratories for years, but this is the first time anybody has figured out how to scale up the technology to produce a marketable quantity at a competitive price. Escagenetics has entered into a manufacturing agreement with a division of Unilever, and if current plans work out, the new vanilla will soon be finding its way into ice creams and baked products and gourmet kitchens.
The possibilities for further food production of this sort are nothing short of stunning. Some scientists, for example, have grown the juice vesicles of citrus fruits in culture. This raises the science-fictionish image of "real" orange juice without orange groves.
Others have worked with the tissues of various fruits and vegetables, suggesting the prospect of such food-factory products as jellies and fruit flavorings, tomato sauce and corn oil.
Fibers could be produced the same way; a researcher in Texas is already growing cotton fibers in tissue culture.
The product that has the scientists and the stock speculators most excited, however, is not food or fiber but medicine. Escagenetics is moving quickly toward commercial production of taxol, a chemical that appears to be an effective treatment for ovarian and breast cancers.
Taxol is produced naturally in the bark and needles of the rare Pacific yew tree which grows wild in the old-growth forest of the Northwest.
When word of taxol's medical promise first leaked out, it looked like civil war between clinicians and environmentalists would ensue. Poachers began ranging through forests and stripping bark from yew trees. The Weyerhauser Company, looking ahead, planted 700,000 yew trees, and scientists in laboratories all over the country went to work trying to synthesize the complex taxol molecule.
Then Escagenetics put a team of its cell culture scientists to work, and they succeeded in producing taxol by more or less the same method that they are producing vanilla. The company hopes that taxol from cell culture will be in commercial production in a couple of years.
Not surprisingly, its stock is one of the hottest on the West Coast.
Plant cell culture is in its infancy -- but as its first products come on the market, and its technology develops, it promises to become an important supplement to conventional agricultural.
Walter Truett Anderson is author of a book on biotechnology, "To Govern Evolution: Further Adventures of the Political Animal." He wrote this article for Pacific News Service.