Tate & Lyle
Carst and Walker

GMOs? Old hat. Synthetically modified food is the new frontier

Genetically modified organisms are ancient, technologically speaking, and have been around since 1996. A new technology is on the scene, adding a twist to the already complicated conversation about GMOs in food: synthetic biology.

In essence, synthetic biology is about designing and building workhorse organisms that can make things more efficiently than nature (or make things we might need that nature doesn’t make at all). It is the next stage of genetic engineering.

While there’s been far more hype around synthetic biology’s potential to create drugs, biofuels and even designer creatures, some of the most recent “synbio” products to hit the market are actually already commercialised.

Synbio vanillin, an alternative to artificial vanilla flavour, was rolled out in the US a few months ago by International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF), the US partner of the Swiss synthetic biology company, Evolva, that invented the technology. IFF is keeping mum about which food companies are using it.

While GM seeds typically contain genes from another organism that bestow a plant with a new defence mechanism, making synbio food involves taking genes from a plant and giving them to yeast to make the same compound the plant makes, but much more efficiently, via fermentation.

Evolva also has synbio saffron, the antioxidant resveratrol and stevia in the pipeline. All are expected to go to market in the next two years. The main advantage of synthetic biology foods, Evolva claims, is that they can be made in a lab, rather than in a field that has to be tended by labourers and is subject to unpredictable variables like weather.
Saffron is one of the most labour-intensive and expensive crops in the world (there are lots of fake versions). And the sweet molecule in the stevia plant occurs only in tiny quantities — well below one percent of the plant’s total composition, which drives its cost up, too. Evolva’s synbio resveratrol, the antioxidant that occurs naturally in red wine and chocolate, is now available, and could get snapped up by supplement companies peddling the chemical’s supposed anti-aging benefits.

Artificial vanilla flavouring, meanwhile, is cheap, but it’s derived from petrochemicals and paper mill waste, and thus can’t be labelled “natural.” So Evolva saw an opportunity: Synbio vanillin, the name of the compound in the vanilla bean that imparts most of its flavour, can be labelled “natural” because it’s made from fermentation, according to the Flavor and Extracts Manufacturers Association. (Flavorings and supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA.)

Evolva claims its vanillin “will have a better and more rounded taste” than the artificial vanillin that’s in most vanilla-flavoured food products…..

The Salt at NPR.org: Read the full article

Additional reading:

Synthetic biology firms shift focus

Plain old vanilla doesn’t impress Neil Goldsmith, chief executive of Evolva, a synthetic-biology company based in Reinach, Switzerland. This year, his company will release a product that has been created by genetically modified yeast that converts sugars to vanillin. It will be the first major synthetic-biology food additive to hit supermarkets.

The product marks a shift for the industry, which has typically focused on the synthesis of drugs and commodities such as biofuels and rubber. Now, synthetic-biology companies are turning to ‘fine chemicals’: food and fragrance ingredients that command high prices in small batches. “The products take less time to develop, they take less money to develop, and they’re much less risky,” says Goldsmith…..

Nature.com: Read more

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