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What is Synthetic biology and why should we care about it?

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What is Synthetic biology and why should we care about it?

Dr. Ramon Seidler, former professor of microbiology and retired EPA senior research scientist, explains Synthetic biology and the many food and cosmetic products they are found in.

I recently read that if you asked 5 experts, you would likely get 6 different answers to this question.


Here is one answer from a special United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity reviewing the issues associated with this technology over the last 8 years: “Synthetic biology is a further development and new dimension of modern biotechnology that combines science, technology and engineering to facilitate and accelerate the understanding, design, redesign, manufacture and/or modification of genetic materials, living organisms and biological systems.”   Whew, not very clear is it?

How about this definition? It's all about using microbes to synthesize a product of value by genetically placing new biochemical capabilities into a microbe.

Synthetic Biology (syn-bio) is a “novel” approach to producing chemicals and food additives such as fragrances, vaccines, biofuels, and pharmaceuticals, using one or more modern biotechnology genetic engineering techniques.  It involves genetic engineering in a different way from current GE crops, but most of us know little to nothing about the technique or the commercial syn-bio products that we may be consuming every day.

At this time in the U.S., it is an unregulated technology and of course there are no labels to know when such a product is being consumed.  The European Health and Food Safety Committees have been struggling for a consensus regulatory ruling since at least 2008. Most governments are just sailing along under the good faith that corporations say it is safe. I have been told by a colleague in the United Kingdom that syn-bio products are regulated there under one or more of the existing GE organism rules but such assurances are not yet confirmed nor findable on the internet.

Generically speaking here is how a syn-bio product might be made.  First, science must define and understand the cellular pathway to make a given product--let’s say vanilla.  Then, one goes to a computer and finds the DNA sequences and genes functioning in the pathway that makes vanilla. The scientist can print out the chemical composition (sequences within DNA) of these genes.  Then, this sequence data is sent to a company to synthesize the actual DNA molecules that make up this pathway.  The real DNA is then incorporated into an alga or yeast or bacterial cell using something like a biolistic or explosive gun or a genetic technique, then they select cells that make the new vanilla product and voila!  Once the newly created organism is verified, the production is tooled up to make the product (vanilla) in huge fermentation tanks like in a brewery. The chemical (vanilla) is isolated, sold and distributed. 


Please understand this process makes only “vanilla.” In actual practice, when extracted from tree pods, vanilla contains about 250different chemicals, not just one.

No regulators to deal with, no oversight, just market it and make money.

There are many products already on the market and numerous ones in the pipeline.  Here is a partial list of the more common products that have been developed and may be in our lives now, or soon:

Flavors/additives: vanilla, stevia, saffron, cocoa butter
Personal care: rose aromas, patchouli incense fragrance and squalane skin moisturizer
Animal replacement products (artificial milk!)
Isoprene to make rubber for tires
Surfactants from agricultural waste products
Vaccines from artificially constructed gene products
Cephalexin antibiotic from 2 enzymes, not 13 step chemical process
Adipic acid precursor for nylon ($5 billion industry)
Biofuels as petroleum alternatives
Pharmaceutical to treat diabetes II called Januvia. Synthesis modification in progress now. 

It’s easy to understand how this is an annual $40 billion business with some 200 companies involved in producing products.

High level conversations among scientists at a recent conference promoted by MIT listed the first two items as important and relevant concerns as syn-bio continues its paths of development:

  1. The accidental release of a harmful organism or system that was designed to be benign and not be released into the environment. (italics mine)
  2. The purposeful release of a harmful organism or system that was designed to be released (biological warfare agent).

Here are other issues discussed elsewhere:

1. Numerous social and religious debates and concerns over production and use of syn-bio human and animal products for correcting illnesses and diseases;

2. Destruction of natural planetary biodiversity by laboratory substitutes for each and every chemical deemed to be syn-bio profitable. For example, who would cultivate and tend natural vanilla trees or crocus plants if there is little to no market for the natural product?

3. Little to no knowledge of the genetic, ecological, or health consequences of escaped syn-bio organisms not completely sterilized as each batch is flushed out of the fermentation tanks; who monitors/specifies criteria to monitor for sterile effluents?

4. Other concerns with syn-bio products include the destruction of hundreds of thousands of jobs involving small farmers who currently cultivate crocus for saffron, vanilla tree plantation farmers, massive increased use of sugars to provide the energy source for microbes to grow in huge fermentation vats.  (Many syn-bio companies are currently located in Brazil, a country with massive sugar production facilities).


Please know that the U.S. National Standards Organic Board is working hard on our behalf to prevent syn-bio products from entering the "organic" market place.  Furthermore, it is reassuring to know that the Non GMO Project Verified folks are busily identifying food products that contain syn-bio chemicals and will soon be able to offer suitable replacement products labeled with their special Non GMO Project Verified logo.  And, as always, shop for organic products in local food coops, farmers markets, even some big-box stores and restaurants.

For more information about syn-bio and how to avoid it, download the Shopper’s Guide to Synthetic Biology here.