You Need to Know: All About Synthetic Biology Foods

The latest term buzzing around the food world is one you're not likely to know: synthetic biology, or "synbio." Grist calls it "the next front in the never-ending GMO war." So while we're still figuring out what to make of GMOs, farmers, food suppliers and chefs should start to get to know this new method for developing foods.
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Granny smith apple being injected over white background
Granny smith apple being injected over white background

The latest term buzzing around the food world is one you're not likely to know: synthetic biology, or "synbio." Grist calls it "the next front in the never-ending GMO war." So while we're still figuring out what to make of GMOs, farmers, food suppliers and chefs should start to get to know this new method for developing foods.

What exactly is synthetic biology and how is it different than genetically engineered--or GMO--foods?
Think of it this way: Generally, genetically engineered foods take desired genes from one organism and cut and paste them into another organism. Synthetic biology instead treats genes like computer code, remixing DNA sequences to create foods (and medicines and biofuels and lots of other things) that are not seen in nature. Scientists are literally printing DNA and then placing that DNA in e-coli or yeast.

"If genetic sequencing is about reading DNA, and genetic engineering as we know it is about copying, cutting and pasting it, synthetic biology is about writing and programming new DNA with two main goals: create genetic machines from scratch and gain new insights about how life works," writes Josie Garthwaite for The Atlantic.

Todd Kuiken, a senior program associate with the Synthetic Biology Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, calls synbio "the next stage of genetic engineering." Some say the global market for synbio will reach $16 billion by 2018.

Still confused? This video does a great job of explaining the basics:

Why would we want synbio foods?
Well, a few reasons. Number one on the list is climate change.

"In the face of energy and water constraints, a squeeze on cultivable land, and an imperative to limit greenhouse gas emissions, synbio could also transform the way we farm and eat," writes Garthwaite.

"By assembling biological systems from genetic code catalogued in online databases and fine-tuned through computer modeling, they could deliver more-nutritious crops that thrive with less water, land, and energy, and fewer chemical inputs, in more variable climates and on lands that otherwise would not support intensive farming."

Agriculture, after all, accounts for 70 percent of all water use. The inefficient and destructive systems of monoculture farming, pesticide and antibiotic use, along with factory-farmed livestock, wreak havoc on human, animal and environmental health.

"We need to reduce carbon emissions and toxic inputs, use less land and water, combat pests, and increase soil fertility," plant geneticist Pamela Ronald, director of the Laboratory for Crop Genetics Innovation at the University of California, Davis has said.

There is even the possibility of self-fertilizing synbio plants, which the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development writes "could revolutionize agriculture and would significantly decouple agriculture from the oil industry."

It's yet one more example of the potential for synbio seeds to do good. "Palm oil has been such an extreme disaster for forests, and the environment more generally, that if these synthetic organisms can produce large volumes of vegetable oil, we should celebrate them," Glenn Hurowitz, chair of the Forest Heroes Campaign told Grist.

Furthermore, an increasing global population along with third-world nations quickly adapting to American diets ensures that a global desire for meat is not going to diminish in the years to come. It'd be best to find a more efficient and environmentally friendly way to feed these carnivorous mouths, and many companies are doing just that by using synthetic biology to develop meat in a lab.

And lastly, many are excited about the possibilities of creating completely new foods--for sustainability, efficiency and flavor. "There are other companies using synthetic biology and genetic engineering to create whole new food ingredients," data scientist Dan Zigmond told Wired "We are exploring the vast world of plants to discover natural compounds that can revolutionize food." Zigmond is in the process of building an online database to catalog plant protein behaviors that can then be utilized to build new food products.

Ok, there have to be some potential dangers to synthetic biology foods, no?
Absolutely. There's lots of contention around GMOs, and similar issues surround synbio.

"Experts consulted for a recent report from the Woodrow Wilson Center's Synthetic Biology Project say potential risks demanding more research range from the creation of 'new or more vigorous pests and pathogens' to 'causing irreparable loss or changes in species diversity or genetic diversity within species,'" notes Garthwaite.

It's impossible to know how organisms with completely new DNA will interact with bees, soil or other species. Could artificial DNA overtake natural variations? Probably.

Additionally, the labeling and managing of synbio foods is something that will place additional stress on the Environmental Protection Agency. Already, one company has been criticized for evading regulation.

Are synbio foods available today?
Yes. The company Evolva launched synbio vanillin in the U.S. this summer. They also plan to launch synbio stevia, saffron and resveratrol.

Also in the pipeline, the start-up Muufri is engineering yeast to create cow, goat and buffalo milk. Other companies are after vegan cheese, egg whites and algae butter all made without the actual animal. New Wave Foods is working on algae-based shrimp.

In short, hold onto your hats, knives and forks because the grocery aisles will soon be offering up an all-new category of synthetic foods test your palate.

Originally published on Plate Online.

Eve Turow Paul is the author of A Taste of Generation Yum. Follow Eve on Facebook and Twitter @EveTurow, and learn more about her book, here!

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