Synthetic Biology is a fast evolving, wide ranging field described as “the next stage of genetic engineering,” by Todd Kuiken, a Senior Program Associate with the Synthetic Biology Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The field is still new and evolving so quickly that scientists have yet to agree on how to define it. Basically, synthetic biology (synbio) is the application of engineering principles to the science of biotechnology. Using genomes and DNA as material for building or “reprogramming” new genetic material or organisms, synbio could take genetic engineering to a new level. Whereas genetic engineering is focused on cutting DNA strands from one living organism and splicing them into another, synthetic biology (GMOs 2.0) seeks to design and synthesize DNA from scratch, or re-program the existing DNA of an organism, in order to create genetic material or organisms that are capable of producing chemicals and compounds the organism could not produce naturally.
Synthetic biologists engineer and program rapidly reproducing organisms like yeast, bacteria and algae to be used like micro factories for production. By re-building algae, for example, scientists can program it to secrete a specific by-product for commercial use. Much of the news surrounding synthetic biology is focused on the production of insulin, the research for genetically engineered insects as a way to combat malaria, or the search for alternative biofuels. However, some of the recent developments in synbio can be found in our food. Somewhere.
Companies that began research in synbio in hopes of finding an algae-based biofuel have found that endeavor to be costly and difficult to efficiently produce results on a large scale. Naturally, they looked for a more immediately lucrative alternative. As a result, products like synbio vanillin, saffron, and stevia are being developed to flavor food and beverages. Cosmetics and cleaning product manufacturers are also turning to synthetic biology ingredients in hopes of cutting the costs of using real plant derived ingredients for some of the fragrances and oils in their products. Several of these synbio ingredients have already made it to shelves.
If synbio products are out there, why haven’t we heard more about them?
Simply put, because there are currently no regulations regarding the use or labeling of these products, and biotech companies are actively avoiding talking about them. Synthetic biology is different from any other regulated technology. This new technology does not simply genetically engineer the product. It also genetically engineers the process, for example, by altering the organism’s metabolic pathways. Synthetic biology may be used to re-program the DNA of an algae or yeast to compel it to produce a new product. It is the genetic instructions that are engineered, not the product, so there is no regulatory body in existence that would oversee it. In fact, since these synbio “machines” may produce organisms with a DNA sequence identical or similar to the natural product after which it is modeled, several of these additives are not just on shelves, but are labeled as “natural.”
Natural vs. Man-Made
One example of this is the re-programming of yeast cells to produce vanillin, the compound in the vanilla bean that imparts most of the flavor of vanilla. The engineered yeast is fed sugar in a fermentation vat, and as it grows, it produces vanillin. It is then harvested and the vanillin extracted. Admittedly, the product will not be as flavorful as natural vanilla extract taken from the bean, which has over 250 flavor and aroma compounds - the modified yeast cannot produce that complexity. However, it will rival the flavor of the petroleum-based artificial vanilla flavoring currently available on the market. Since it is cheaper and easier to produce and it does not require a label declaring it to be “artificial flavoring” by any regulatory agency, the interest in the synbio vanillin to replace truly natural vanilla could be high.
The producers of these compounds argue that the process is similar to that of brewing beer or making wine and the end result is a compound identical to a naturally occurring compound; therefore, it should be considered natural and be labeled as such. “DNA is DNA,” remarks Neil Goldsmith, CEO of Evolva, a Swiss-American company currently selling synbio vanillin. “What matters to a gene is sequence, not how you made it.” He contends that there is no such thing as an artificial gene.
Not everyone agrees. Synthetic biologists are engaged in what Dana Perls, Senior Food and Technology Campaigner for Friends of the Earth, and several others have categorized as extreme genetic engineering. The biotechnology industry views living organisms as machines that can be tinkered with, re-wired and re-built to fit our needs. By altering the genetic code of an organism, they compel it to produce chemicals and compounds it could not naturally produce. Genetically modified yeast, algae and rapidly reproducing bacteria like E. coli, fed with sugar in fermentation vats, can be programmed to produce marketable and highly profitable compounds. With the financial backing of the U.S. Government and several public and private companies, Synthetic Biology is a fast growing industry estimated to reach anywhere from $16 to $38 billion globally by 2020.
Given the financial backing, the speed of advancing technologies, and the interest of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and companies like DuPont and Monsanto, synthetic biology is just beginning to influence the world. Scientists have recently developed a DNA synthesizer that is capable of building designer DNA from scratch. It is now possible to select and arrange the DNA code of an organism and order it over the Internet. In 2011, the first synthetically derived microbe was produced, nicknamed Synthia. Craig Ventor, a leading Geneticist and creator of Synthia, said it was “the first self-replicating species on the planet whose parent is a computer.”
The debate over whether we should be manipulating genes and designing living organisms on the molecular level is a large one and too complex to be decided anytime soon. The applications of this research in disease control, sustainable fuel sourcing, and industrial waste disposal could be of great benefit to a struggling world. However, as Marc Brazeau, a writer and agriculture editor for the Genetic Literacy Project observed, “Food is incredibly personal.” The food we choose to put into our bodies, the lotions we choose to use on our skin, and the products with which we choose to clean our homes are intimate choices. They should be well-informed choices as well.