The role of synthetic biology in sustainably sourcing ingredients

By Danielle Masterson

- Last updated on GMT

Getty Images / RyanKing999
Getty Images / RyanKing999

Related tags GMO Sustainability Biohacking Biotechnology synthetic biology omega-3

Technology is key in sustainability, identity and security. At the forefront is synthetic biology, with some pointing to the tool as the answer to solving these pressing and emerging needs.

Simply put, synthetic biology offers new ways to sustainably develop food ingredients. SynBio is a multidisciplinary area of research that finds ways to create or redesign new biological parts or systems that already exist in nature. It can mean simple gene editing combined with fermentation processes, or more complex applications such as cellular meats that culture food products from animal cells.

“No GMOs in the end product”

When it comes to the production of sustainable foods and supplements using SynBio, GMOs are used as processing aids, “Meaning there are no GMOs in the end product. The molecules are the same as the natural product. A GMO has been altered by taking a gene, which occurs in nature, and inserting it into a microorganism that occurs in nature to produce a product that benefits us all,” ​explained Simão Soares, CEO of SilicoLife, a company combining AI and biology for sustainable products. “Because microbes grow quickly and often require minimal feed, they can be cost effective and low impact. This is the very definition of sustainable.”

Soares explained that SilicoLife's approach to synthetic biology involves applying fermentation to produce ingredients by using microorganisms as cell factories in fermentation processes for the production of supplements in order to improve their sustainability,  ensure identity and enhance supply chain security.

What some consumers may not realize is many of these SynBio products already have a place in their cabinets and at their dinner tables.

The world is your petri dish 

“It is extremely important to have scalable technologies that can offer efficient processes for compounds that can be efficiently scaled-up respecting environmental and social aspects. Indeed, most of the current production methods rely upon lengthy cultivation and low yield extraction processes, since most often plant concentrations of active compounds are very low, leading to high market prices,”​ explained Soares. 

Soares pointed to vanillin as one example of this sustainability paradox. 

“Most vanilla flavored products use vanillin obtained via chemical synthesis that allows the access to a cheap and stable source. Consumers demand for natural and environmentally sustainable sourced vanillin created a huge pressure on the producers of natural vanilla pods. In 2018, the Financial Times reported that this resulted in a price surge that brought vanilla to the level of silver and caused severe problems in the agriculture communities of Madagascar, the largest producer of vanilla in the world.” 

Synthetic solutions to real world problems

Wild fish has always been the traditional and primary source of omega-3. With consumer demand for fish oils on the rise, overfishing is also increasing. 

“Omega-3s as many other natural products/dietary supplements are present in plants and animals (fish in the omega-3 case), but are also produced by microorganisms as in this case by many algae strains, which efficiently accumulate commercial quantities of omega fatty acids without any genetic retrofit,” ​said Soares. “Several commercial offers are already available as by DSM/Martek, Corbion/Solazyme, and others, that all are using naturally occurring high producing strains providing an alternative to source omega-3s — without overfishing.”

Indeed, unsustainable fishing practices have pushed several fish populations near extinction, and Soares said the biotechnology industry has the tools to offer the sustainable supply needed to meet high consumer demand. 

“Omega-3 is a very good example that biotechnology/fermentation can be a competitive option to source ingredients in a natural and scalable fashion. Biotechnology industry has the tools to, together with the supplements industry, develop new biological processes for the production of molecules of interest and establish alternative and secure supply chains for the ingredients this market is demanding. At SilicoLife, we are using AI and Biology to find biological routes for the production of these molecules and creating optimized microorganisms that can enable their natural and scalable bioproduction.”

“Biotechnology and fermentation are great ways of having natural and scalable processes deliver products that meet the current consumer requirements in a truly sustainable way and should be considered as an option for the supplements industry,"​ advised Soares.

Synthetic biology can’t be ignored

A team of 80 leaders from over 30 institutions compiled a roadmap for the future of synthetic biology. The report​ makes the case for why the federal government should invest in this area., including improving public health, food crops and the environment, as well as a tool to fuel the economy.  Criticisms of the technology have focused, among other things, on the labeling of some of the resulting ingredients as 'natural' which advocates say puts producers who source ingredients from actual soil-grown botanicals at a disadvantage.

"If you look back in history, scientists and engineers have learned how to routinely modify the physical world through physics and mechanical engineering, learned how to routinely modify the chemical world through chemistry and chemical engineering,"​ said Douglas Friedman, one of the leaders of the roadmap project and executive director of the Engineering Biology Research Consortium. 

"The next thing to do is figure out how to utilize the biological world through modifications that can help people in a way that would otherwise not be possible. We are at the precipice of being able to do that with biology,” ​said Friedman. “The opportunity is immense.”

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