Feature of the Week: Genius in a Bottle


Feature of the Week: Genius in a Bottle

Harvesting human-like protein from genetically modified barley, Icelandic company ORF Genetics is revolutionizing the world of green biotechnology. With Iceland’s First Lady Dorrit Moussaieff and Hollywood stars among its loyal fans, the company’s phenomenal skincare range has, quite literally, changed the face of the cosmetics industry.

Published in the 2011 winter issue of Iceland Review – IR 04.11. By Ásta Andrésdóttir, photo by Páll Stefánsson.


The Icelandic word for scythe, the traditional farmer’s tool for reaping crops, is orf. As it happens, ORF is also the acronym for Open Reading Frame, a stretch of DNA sequence, which can be translated to build a protein. Therefore, with its name, pioneering company ORF Genetics celebrates its Icelandic roots and ties with nature while working on cutting edge biotechnology and scientific research.

“We have developed a highly detailed method of producing growth factors, i.e. substances found in the human body capable of stimulating cellular renewal and maintenance. These proteins are usually produced in bacteria, animal cells or even extracted from human tissue, but with a certain genetic technology we have found a way to produce them in barley seeds,” explains ORF Genetics co-founder and CEO Dr. Örvar.

We are sitting in his office at the company’s modern and spacious headquarters, located just outside of the capital. The upper floors comprise the office space while the ground floor houses the research laboratory.

“We grow the barley in our Green Factory, a state-of-the-art greenhouse in Grindavík, on the Reykjanes Peninsula. In a long and delicate process, the barley is grown in pumice from the volcano Hekla and watered with pure Icelandic water. Once it has been harvested, the protein is extracted from the pulverized seeds.”

ORF Genetics was founded in 2001 by Dr. Björn Örvar (Ph.D. in plant molecular genetics), Einar Mäntylä (Ph.D. in plant molecular genetics), and Júlíus B. Kristinsson (Ph.D. in biology). “Before returning to Iceland from our studies abroad, we had been throwing ideas between us regarding what to do. This started out as a research project but soon grew so big that we decided to found a company around it. And from there, it just kept growing. Now we are a leader, not only in Iceland but in the international field of plant biotechnology.”

You can read the remainder of this article in the 2011 winter issue of Iceland Review – IR 04.11. Four times a year the print edition of Iceland Review brings you a wealth of articles on all aspects of life in Iceland including Páll Stefánsson's latest images of the country's majestic landscape. Click here to subscribe and here to browse through a selection of pages from the current issue.