Last week I went to the beach to take in the immense biodiversity of the marine sanctuary that is the Monterey Bay. While looking for frolicking dolphins, I noticed a number of young people with their eyes glued to their phones. It led me to reflect on how our personal time has been altered by computers and science. I recently learned that the same holds true for genetic engineering. New breakthroughs with computers and DNA strands are occurring rapidly and raising the very nature of genetic engineering to a new level.
This leads me to a question I’d like to explore in this post: What in the world is Synthetic Biology?
Synthetic Biology is a confusing and invariably eerie term which can be best understood as an extreme version of genetic engineering. Also known as “syn-bio,” this extension of genetic engineering is creating something radically new. Traditional genetic engineering requires moving one or two genes from one organism into another organism – a sort of cut and paste affair. Synthetic Biology involves writing new genetic code and biological “circuits” from scratch by printing them out on a DNA printer. In this way scientists can produce synthetic DNA and manipulate it into other organisms to create new living entities never before found in nature. Using computers, yeasts and algae, these synthetically-engineered entities hold great rewards for manufacturers and food companies looking to source less expensive alternatives to natural ingredients and for future potential applications to biofuels, the production of industrial chemicals and biomedical applications.
The market for syn-bio is estimated to be $2.4 Billion this year and $10.8 Billion by the year 2016. Between 2005 and 2010 the US government spent $430 million on synthetic biology related research. They spent ZERO dollars on environmental risk assessment. Large agribusiness, energy, chemical, cosmetics and flavoring companies have meanwhile invested many billions of dollars into the technology. Computers are creating novel genes with novel traits and brand new organisms– sometimes by the hundreds of thousands per day– and around 20 products are already on the market or close to commercial use.
Our ability to synthesize new genes far outpaces our understanding of how they work.
Is syn-bio in our food?
Yes, a syn-bio grapefruit flavor and orange flavor is already in commercial use, and now some companies want to introduce Syn-bio vanillin into our food as well. Constructed in labs and grown in vats, the computers genetically re-engineer the DNA of yeast to produce a vanilla like substance. This computer synthesized yeast is an entirely new entity on our planet. A company named Evolva ®, in collaboration with International Flavors and Fragrances, wants to make it the biggest ingredient of synthetic biology in our food system. These companies would like to masquerade their synthetic biology vanillin on the market as a “natural” and “sustainable” product.
Why should we be concerned?
In the face of momentous opposition to genetically engineered foods, syn-bio vanilla is about to be introduced into the marketplace as the first high profile synthetic biology ingredient in food. This new product is neither “natural,” nor sustainable, and almost completely unregulated. It could set a dangerous precedent for the use of many other synthetic biology ingredients in food. The natural product market and the natural vanilla market alike depend on consumer demand. Without labeling requirements, consumers will not know if the “natural” product is made with real vanilla beans or synthetic biology vanillin. This could devastate the natural products market as well as the international natural vanilla market.
The impact on hundreds of thousands of native vanilla growers in equatorial rainforests is of grave concern. When manufacturers can still make ‘natural’ claims while buying syn-bio vanilla grown in a vat in Switzerland or San Francisco at a fraction of the cost, why should they bother sourcing from hundreds of small growers across the globe? Vanilla production is very closely related to rainforest conservation and protection. If that production is no longer profitable or viable, then we may see those rainforests that grow vanilla destroyed.
This extreme genetic engineering is not environmentally sustainable at the industrial scale. Like most GMOs, syn-bio is untested and unnatural, and in most cases not necessary. There are no regulations or safety tests framed to oversee the new risks of synthetic biology. Algae and yeasts are some of the most basic and prolific building blocks of life and can travel easily throughout the environment. If they are released into nature there could be genetic contamination on a wide scale producing new forms of invasive species or exotic pervasive pollutants.
What can you do?
We must tell the FDA not to approve syn-bio vanilla until it is properly tested for environmental and health concerns. If it is approved then we must demand that it cannot be labeled as natural or it will undermine all natural food products. Just as with genetically engineered foods, we must insist that all Syn-bio products are tested and clearly labeled.
A group of 116 consumer, food safety, environmental, sustainable agriculture, parent, public health and faith based organizations have signed the “Principles for the Oversight of Synthetic Biology”, which outlines the need to safeguard public health and the environment from the novel risks of synthetic biology and to ensure open, meaningful and full public participation in decisions regarding its uses.
International Flavors and Fragrances is currently sending syn-bio samples to companies. At this very moment, the decision is being made by companies you know. It will be tempting for them to source at a lower price point and still label their products as natural. Visit Friends of the Earth website No Syn-bio vanilla to tell major companies not to use this vanilla. Contact them to pledge that your company will not source syn-Bio vanilla or other syn-bio ingredients if approved for sale. You can read more on this subject from The ETC Group and from Synbiowatch.
While on vacation this summer I had the serendipitous opportunity to canoe alongside a scientist working in the field of synthetic biology. Despite the pride and sense of accomplishment she derives from her work, she heartily agreed that this emerging technology deserves greater oversight and regulation. She said, “We don’t fully understand the ramifications of the new worlds we are creating.” As science and technology rush ahead with emerging technologies, we must also safeguard our health and our planets’ sacred biodiversity.