Several companies are currently producing what are termed “fine chemicals” using synthetic biology. Fine chemicals are high-priced food and fragrance ingredients that can be marketed in small batches. This is in direct contrast to the biofuel industry that requires large amounts of product traded in a highly competitive market. Coupled with the fact that the price of oil has not risen to the heights many biofuel advocates had predicted, the market has prompted several companies to explore the food and cosmetic applications of this new technology. Compared to biofuel’s estimated price of $1 per kilogram, fine chemicals can command prices anywhere from $10 - $10,000 per kilogram.
“We’re barely scratching the surfaces of the chemicals for which we already know there are markets,” says Mark Bünger, research director at Lux Research, an independent research and advisory firm which tracks emerging technologies. Flavors, aromatic compounds, oils and proteins are being manufactured by multiple firms. These compounds, derived from synthetically engineered yeast or algae, have made their way onto grocery shelves. Where exactly these compounds are being used is not easy to say. Since there is no regulatory agency overseeing the use of synbio technology, there is no way to track its applications.
Genetically engineered yeast and algae producing fine chemicals is only one branch of this emerging technology. The true cutting edge of synbio is the ability to custom design and manufacture genes from scratch. This advancement opens a myriad of doors and applications in agriculture and food production. Scientists are working on ways to mass produce genes that will be inserted directly into seeds, plants, and soil changing how a crop grows, resists pests and adapts to climate changes. Conceivably, the synthesized genes would be constructed in a lab, frozen, and available to order over the Internet where seed, fertilizer, and other agriculture companies could have the genes delivered.
Large agricultural biotech companies like Monsanto, Bayer, and Syngenta are experimenting with RNA interference sprays to equip crops with the ability to kill bugs and plant viruses. This mechanism is derived from a Nobel Prize winning discovery made in 2006 and meant to block disease-causing genes in the human body. The RNA interference spray applied to plants temporarily blocks the activity of a gene needed for the insect’s survival. Once ingested, the gene shuts down, and the insect dies. The same is true for a virus. Once the plant virus runs across the “gene silencer,” it shuts down. The appeal is that the spray would defend the plant without having to modify the plant’s genomes. In other words, it would be faster, cheaper, and the plant would no longer be considered a Genetically Modified Organism.
The technology behind and applications of synthetic biology continue to grow at a staggering rate. The science far out-paces even the scientists own full understanding of it, let alone the average consumer’s understanding of it. Chemicals and compounds are being fast-tracked and appear on the shelves before the government has the chance to create regulations for these new technologies and organisms or even monitor them. Simple fertilizers and pesticides are things of the past. Research grants and private funds are focused on tomorrow and the use of DNA as building blocks or “bio-bricks.” Seen as sophisticated Legos, these bio-bricks will be the foundation for several new innovations.
Synthetic biology is here and part of our world. Whether we learn from the example of the ongoing GMO debate or not is still in question. Our recent experiences of relying on industries to self-regulate their products such as DDT, nicotine, and glyphosate have left consumers wary of biotechnology that has not been thoroughly and openly assessed by a third party. Will transparency be required? Will companies educate consumers on the processes they use to produce their goods? Will the USDA and other agencies take pro-active measures to regulate the emerging technology and its usage? Or are we destined to repeat the mistakes of past years and be forced to work backwards instead of move forward? The availability of processed or “modified” food is not the issue. It can be found in any major chain grocery store. Transparency is the issue. Consumers are asking for more information about products and production, and that trend will continue to grow.