In the 1975 movie blockbuster “Jaws,” Roy Scheider’s character gets a glimpse of the sharkzilla darting its head out of the ocean and backs away in terror, approaching his shipmate with the unscripted line: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
When it comes to producing the coveted omega-2 oil squalene, a boat is no longer needed. For years, this compound has been harvested from deep-sea shark livers because of its numerous health properties and commercial uses. Now, a company with offices in Cornelius is part of a sustainable and more environmentally friendly production method that not only can ease pressure on shark catches but can benefit North Carolina tobacco farmers.
The North Carolina Biotechnology Center recently awarded SynShark – a startup biotech company that also has offices in College Station, Texas – a $250,000 small-business research loan. In May, SynShark’s production of squalene grown in tobacco plants won the $10,000 first prize at the third annual North Carolina Ag Biotech Entrepreneurial Showcase.
Your body produces squalene, as do plants and animals. But the greatest concentrations of squalene are found in sharks – making them a target for companies seeking a delivery agent used in vaccines, as a moisturizer in cosmetics, and as a boost to nutritional supplements.
Squalene is “one of our natural defenses against free radicals such as UV, and extremely healthy for us to use internally or topically,” said SynShark Executive Director Jason Ornstein, founder of Ornstein Limited in London. “Some sharks, deep-sea sharks in particular, have livers that create a well of squalene.” He added that because the shark has no large air pockets, squalene – which is lighter than water – helps sharks float.
Ornstein says 3 million deep-sea sharks are killed each year for the contents of their livers. “The liver must be removed, which is lethal to a shark. The rest is sent back to sea and any other useful resource is discarded.”
SynShark technology, designed by professor Joshua Yuan at Texas A&M University, works with the tobacco plant’s natural biology to encourage it to produce higher levels of squalene – and then store the compound rather than use it as an energy source.
SynShark is using its loan funding to expand a half-acre test plot near Greensboro to 10 acres, with a goal of fast acreage expansion for renewable squalene in years to come. Early results are promising, including plant growth.
“Our plants are reaching maturity at around 12 weeks, weather dependent,” Ornstein said. “During this year’s field trial in Greensboro, we conducted cuttings eight times to examine where in the growth cycle the plant would maximize squalene yield. This will better inform our lab scientists and next year’s expanded trial.”
Such long-term planning syncs with a market poised for more growth: According to a report last year by marketsandmarkets.com, the squalene market was expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 10.3 percent in value over the next five years and be worth more than $177 million by 2019.
Paul Ornstein, SynShark president of operations based in Cornelius (and Jason Ornstein’s father), says squalene demand provides an unprecedented opportunity for long-suffering North Carolina farmers.
“As a North Carolina resident, I can’t think of anything more important to our state than providing the tobacco farmers of North Carolina the opportunity to replant thousands of acres of farmland that has been sitting unused for years due to the reduced demand for traditional tobacco,” he said.
“In addition, our project will create jobs for farm workers and yield a much higher per-acre return for farmers – typically $3,200 per acre for tobacco, projecting to $12,000 per acre for squalene-producing tobacco.”
Jason Ornstein says the move away from sharks is more than a way to protect the animals, some of which are threatened by extinction. “This is just the beginning of a paradigm shift in local agriculture,” he said.