Two biologists from the University of Colorado (UC) Boulder have ventured into turning soybeans into chemical factories using a platform they developed that infuses genetic instructions into the beans. In time, their research can potentially produce compounds essential for infant milk, vaccines, and cancer treatment.

Essential compounds used in pharmaceuticals are often sourced from live plants and animals. But these living beings become more endangered every year, like sharks whose livers produce the natural oil squalene for vaccine production and old yew trees whose barks contain paclitaxel that is used for chemotherapy. To make pharmaceutical manufacturing more sustainable, the UC scientists came up with the idea of producing the compounds using soybeans. What sets them apart is that they found a way to make the compounds directly from plants, unlike other producers who feed plants to bacteria and yeast to make the chemicals.

They chose soybeans due to their efficiency. The plant can turn the sun's energy into large amounts of proteins and fats while restoring nitrogen to the soil. It is also cheap and accessible. Combining the use of a platform they created with a genetic code from a yew tree sample they got from a commercial vendor, they were able to test their method and infuse the soybean plants with genetic instructions to create the anti-cancer drug paclitaxel. The scientists described the process as “making bean soup.” They add water to a big pot of beans and let them sit until they start making what they were instructed to make. The “soup” is said to look like water but is actually instructions for life.

The biologists also have plans to proceed with the scaled production of their first product, bioengineered milk protein crucial for infant development, within the year.