Synthetic biology coming soon. Is it 'natural'?

October 2014
'Synbio' vanillin could soon be in ice cream and cakes.
CC photo by St0rmz on Flickr
When 'Synthia' first popped into the headlines, it referred to cells containing entire, simplified, man-made chromosomes [1].
Since then, “synthetic biology” has been used to mean so many different technical tricks, it “defies easy definition”. The only common factor seems to be the use of “a tool-box of well-defined genetic parts to build new functions” to create a novel organism. 'Synthetic biology' seems to cover anything from good old-fashioned insertion of chunks of DNA, to the products of any genome re-configuration, to whole genome assembly, and anything else which makes the end-genome different.
'Synthia' has popped into the headlines again because a new version of it could creep into our food chain if we don't watch out.
A Swiss company, describing itself as a “pioneer and global leader in sustainable, fermentation-based approaches to ingredients for health, wellness and nutrition” is busy “address(ing) an increasing consumer demand for high-quality, trustworthy and affordable products that are considered 'natural'”.
What could possibly be ominous about this?
Technical details are sparse, but it seems that 'fermentation based' refers to yeast, 'sustainable' refers to the yeast being genetically re-jigged with “biosynthetic pathways” to enable it to be fed complex carbohydrates (i.e. low-cost, waste-biomass) instead of refined sugars, while the ingredients for “health, wellness and nutrition” refer to reservatrol (a substance produced by stressed plants which is thought to protect against cardio-vascular disease), stevia (non-sugar sweetener), and pomecins (anti-fungal substances found in pomegrates used for food and crop protection). 
Also in the pipeline are vanilla flavouring, saffron flavouring and colouring, and agarwood (used by incense and perfume manufacturers and in traditional medicines) which presumably address consumer demand. 
All of these are pricey substances in their natural form and will be very lucrative to produce by the yeast-filled bucket-load*.
*Note. The vanilla and artificial vanillin market is worth $600 million per annum and sweeteners are worth £60 billion, with stevia taking an increasing share year on year.
The “considered 'natural'” bit refers to the living nature of the feedstock from which the additives are extracted, as opposed to for example petroleum-derived artificial additives.
As Friends of the Earth pointed out, issues regarding consumer health, potentially devastating and permanent environmental interactions from escaped GM yeast, societal impacts from the loss of markets for the (truly) natural product, have not been considered. The US has no regulatory protocol in place to risk-assess biosynthetic products.
Be under no illusion: what we're talking about is GM yeast, an organism which is notoriously uncontainable and of pathogenic potential, enabled to live on common foodstuffs which yeast has never been able to use before, and is intended to fool consumers into accepting cheap imitations of very expensive substances. 
For what appears to be the most extreme GM product yet, to describe it as 'natural' is breathtakingly insulting to the public.
If all this sounds like rhetorical engineering gone mad, it seems that even in the EU, substances derived directly from an animal or vegetable matter may be labelled 'natural'.
The most immediate threat is synbio vanillin in your ice-cream and cakes. 
Then visit Friends of the Earth: No Synbio Vanilla
[1] SAY NO TO SYNTHIA - GMFS Archive, August 2010

  • Dana Perls, Biotechnology industry cooks up PR plans to get us to swallow synthetic biology food, Friends of the Earth Food and Technology Blog, 22.05.14
  • Synthetic biology: back to basics, Nature Methods 11:5, Editorial, May 2014
  •, accessed September 2014
  • Tom Philpott, Your vanilla ice cream is about to get weirder, Mother Jones, 4.06.14

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