The California Biotech Company Looking Deep Into Plant Dark Matter
We have heard of dark matter referring to a mysterious type of matter that is around the galaxies of our universe. But there is another type of dark matter right here on earth, as elusive as the galactical one. It’s the matter we find inside all plants on our planet, with amazing biological properties crucial for our health. Now A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) technology can allow us to unveil this mysterious plant dark matter. Thanks to, among others, Sofia Elizondo, COO of Brightseed.
In 2017, Sofia co-founded this biosciences company with Jim Flatt (CEO) and Lea Chae (CTO) in San Francisco, California. Brightseed created Forager®. This is the first and only artificial intelligence platform to map the world’s molecules and predict which of them have the greatest impact on critical health areas. JaneUnChained contributor Elysabeth Alfano interviewed Sofia as part of her Plantbased Business Hour channel. This article summarizes the fascinating interview, which you can view below.
What Is the Plant Dark Matter Nutritionists Are So Excited About?
Sofie answers this perfectly:
“In the Universe, we know there is dark matter that is moving galaxies across space, and we barely understand it. When we eat a diet full of plant-based nuts, seeds, and legumes, that leans to longer and healthier lives. We know that for a fact. The question is: we don’t know why.”
“At a molecular level, biologically, what happens when we eat plant-based foods? What molecules in the plant interact with what biological targets in our bodies? To create what kind of chain effects that generate these lovely benefits? That, we are blind to. Pharma knows this kind of space but in a very specific drug to benefit, one-to-one relationship. We don’t know it broadly when it comes to the relationship between all the phytonutrients in our diet, and the health outcomes they generate.”
Forager is on a mission to map millions of bioactive natural compounds. Their goal is to make new connections between the natural world and human health. It has already analyzed over 700,000 compounds for their health properties and is on track to surpass 10 million by 2025.
Phytonutrients Are Part of Dark Matter in Plants
Phytonutrients (or phytochemicals) are natural chemicals found in plants that have beneficial properties for humans when ingested with food. Although they are not essential for keeping us alive, they may help prevent disease and keep our bodies working properly. These chemicals, also known as bioactives, evolved in plants to help them fight against germs, fungi, and other threats. Sofia explains more:
“Plants are prolific producers of four building blocks. One of them is ‘protein. The other one is ‘lipids’. The third one is ‘fibers.’ And, finally, most of the plant genome actually encodes for ‘natural compounds’. These are natural chemicals that plants produce for defending themselves against pathogens. Or the reason why flowers attracted bees. And, this is how plants communicate with their environment. Some of these molecules, when we ingest them as humans, actually act as antioxidants or anti-inflammatories. This is the deep connection that exists between plants and humans, that we’ve only just started to uncover.”
“The reason we built Brightseed was to illuminate and activate these very deep connections that exist at the molecular level between plants and the human body. So, we can further understand what kind of crops we need to grow. And which kind of products we need to create from those crops so we can adjust them for health outcomes.”– Sofia Elizondo, COO of Brightseed
Artificial Intelligence Is Key to Discover the Dark Matter of plants
Believe it or not, we only have discovered 1% of these important molecules. Sofian explains why:
“They are very tricky to find. The world knows about 100,000 of them. And actually, two-thirds of drugs are derived from natural products, including these molecules that exist in plants. They are very valuable, but they are very hard to find. Each of these takes many PhDs and many months to understand the molecule. What is the molecular structure, and how it behaves when it interacts with the human body.”
“And this is why artificial intelligence is so important. A.I. is particularly good at sifting through troves and troves of information and finding patterns inside that information. While science has the ability to generate all of this data about the predicted compounds inside of plants, it’s super noisy and very unstructured. That is why a layer of artificial intelligence on top of all of this data is critical to make sense of it.”
Sofia tells us why there have been fewer studies before:
“It is pretty complex. And there have been many brilliant minds that have studied it. Technology is now coming to a place where we have both the physical equipment to create a lot of data and the software to analyze it with machine learning. It’s also a funding thing.”
“It is a moment in science where we are just at the frontier. We can take advantage and really dive into this dark matter.” – Sofia Elizondo, COO of Brightseed
Precision Nutrition: Next Gen Preventative Medicine
Precision nutrition is also referred to as personalized nutrition. It’s an emerging area of research focusing on the nutrition of individuals rather than groups of people. It aims to help an individual’s health by targeting the specific issues they may have with a diet tailored to them. Quite an ambitious goal. This is where knowledge of phytonutrients can help:
“The last ten years or so, we’ve been able to get very precise with human knowledge. And we mapped the human genome. But we have not been able to have the same level of detail when it comes to plants. And this is the resolution that Brightseed is bringing to this space. We have a ton of details about humans, and what our reactions may be to certain foods. But, we don’t have the same level of detail for plants. In order to create precision nutrition, we must have high resolution on both of these. Plants and humans. So, we can connect at a very precise level what is the best diet from what products or plant sources.”
“What are the important phytonutrients is the first question. How do we grow our crops to make sure that these plant sources express them? Then, we make sure that the products that make it into the hands of consumers, whether fresh produce or packaged produce, are actually chock full of these phytonutrients. So, they can make a difference.”
Journey Into Plant Dark Matter Started With Soy
One of the first partnerships Brightseed has developed is with the France-based international food giant Danone:
“We are working on Soy with Danone. And Dannon has been a fantastic partner to Brightseed. Soy is a very important crop in their plant-based portfolio. Brightseed has, however, analyzed many more plants and created data on hundreds of thousands of compounds that exist in those plants. Brightseed has a mandate to be quite broad. That way we can amass information and find patterns applied to crops that have a history of human consumption. Those are in the tens of thousands, and not necessarily only soy.”
“Soy indeed is a fantastic legume to have in our diets. But it is a very complex crop. And that is where we start. We first ask the question, how much visibility can we get into the expression of phytonutrients that soy can provide? Soy is one of the most studied crops in the world and yet ‘Forager’ can see beyond what science already knows. And then ‘Forager’ is uniquely able to predict how these phytonutrients connect with different health benefits.”
“Once we establish those connections, then the really fun part begins. When we process soy, how can we maintain the concentration of the phytonutrients that make a difference? The reason why this was hard before is because we could not see them.” – Sofia Elizondo, COO of Brightseed
Food As Medicine: The Goal of Learning About Plant Dark Matter
Tools like Forager could revolutionize the entire medical profession. This is what we need to build a vegan world and end the exploitation linked to the pharmacological industry. We need physicians to see plants as their main allies. We can move from curing diseases to preventing them with precision plant-based diets.
“The long-term gain here is food as medicine. How can we prove that this phytonutrient from this plant source actually is having a clinical benefit? Clinical validation is not fast, and there are very stringent processes and trials to prove these kinds of benefits. Which is very important for this space. There is a lot of smoke and mirrors. And it is important to keep standards very high to prove clinical efficacy if we really want to move the needle.”
“Brightseed believes in partnerships to make transformative change happen. Even if Brightseed is pioneering, if it’s only us we are not going to move the needle for the world. So, we really believe that the future of food and health depends on cross-disciplinary partnerships.”
“If we understand the value that each of these unique plant sources brings, and in particular the benefits, and the money that they can save with healthcare costs, then we really start to understand that there is a lot of value to be captured. I see that as very interconnected with sustainability.” – Sofia Elizondo, COO of Brightseed
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Jordi Casmitjana is a vegan zoologist and author.