The team is not the first to develop lycopene from fungus however as companies increasingly turn to the organisms to produce natural, health ingredients.
Vitatene, a subsidiary of Spanish penicillin firm Antibioticos, has applied to European regulator to allow it to market lycopene extracted from the fungus Blakeslea trispora on the European market.
Other fungus-derived ingredients include Martek's arachidonic acid (ARA) oil which is made from Mortierella alpina.
But aside from needing novel foods approval, the health benefits of some fungus-derived ingredients have been questioned. Research on lycopene has mainly been looked at consumption of the ingredient in tomato products.
"There is no epidemiological evidence for pure lycopene but there is a large amount for tomato products," Dr Yoav Sharoni from Ben-Gurion University told NutraIngredients.com.
He added that laboratory studies on lycopene have used far higher concentrations than those normally consumed. But when lower concentrations, like those typically found in blood plasma from dietary lycopene, are combined with other ingredients present in tomatoes, such as vitamin E or other carotenoids, the benefits are significant.
"When you combine lycopene with other carotenoids we see a synergistic effect," he said.
There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that lycopene and tomato-based foods may reduce risk of prostate cancer and fight heart disease, and this has prompted strong demand for supplements. Market analysts Frost and Sullivan value the relatively new carotenoid lycopene at $34 million in the European market last year, but have forecast strong growth driven by interest in functional foods.
As more pure lycopene becomes available it will be possible to compare their effects with the ingredient derived from tomatoes.
Geneticist Timothy Leathers and his team from the US Agricultural Research Service say that the modified fungus, Fusarium sporotrichioides, would allow mass production of lycopene from ethanol co-products like corn fibre rather than requiring extraction and purification of the carotenoid from tomatoes.
"Corn fibre is ideal because it's abundant and costs about five cents a pound. The US ethanol industry generates 4 million tons of the fibre annually, and sells it as livestock feed to avoid disposal fees," said Leathers.
According to the scientist, proof-of-concept studies showed that when cultured in lab flasks, the modified fungus, which has been patented, produced 0.5 milligramme of lycopene per gramme of dry weight within six days. The plan now is to scale up the studies by culturing the fungus in fermenters on a growth medium containing the corn fibre or DDGS.