Here’s a thought experiment: what if living things were actually machines? What if they were the sort of machines that you could take apart, reprogram, and hack to do something entirely new? Plants that glowed like light bulbs? Yeast that produced vanilla? Bacteria that took photographs?
The biotechnology industry has spent years trying to think that way and it’s the impetus to a rapidly exploding industry called synthetic biology. Of course living things are not machines – a bacteria or a yeast is a complex evolving organism that’s as different from a machine as a skyscraper is from a cloud. But the field of synthetic biology, which attempts to bring orderly engineering principles to the messy stuff of life, nonetheless tries to re-characterise living organisms that way: For a start a living organism has a body or a cell – what the biological engineers like to call a ‘chassis’ and it also has ‘instructions’ in the DNA of the cell that look suspiciously like a ‘code’.
The DNA ‘code’ for a living cell is made up of 4 chemical letters G,T,C and A and the arrangement of those letters, like the arrangement of computer code in software, helps determine how a cell grows and what goes on inside the cell – whether it produces ink or vanilla or a protein that glows green. Now imagine, so the thinking goes, if you could just ‘reprogram’ that ‘code’ so that the ‘chassis’ cell does something commercially interesting – then you could imagine profitable uses for these ‘biological machines’.
The cell can be ‘re-programmed’ as a tiny biological ‘factory’ that can pump out any chemical you desire. Scaling up to millions of those ‘programmed cell factories’ (because they are self-replicating ‘machines’ and you can hold them in a big industrial vat) then you effectively have a new way to make the stuff our consumer societies rely on: plastics, fragrances, food ingredients, cosmetics, fuels, medicines etc.
Welcome to the incredible vision behind Synthetic Biology (or synbio) – the applied re-engineering of life to serve industrial production purposes. It may all sound a bit sci fi – but synthetic biology is in fact a multi-billion dollar industry with products already in the market place. Around a hundred synbio companies have deals with some of the largest chemical, food, energy and cosmetics companies on the planet. Those pushing forward the field are household names: from Exxon, BP and Shell to Du Pont, Unilever and Proctor and Gamble.
According to synbio companies their products are already in soft drinks, soaps, face creams and washing detergents – unregulated, unlabelled and under the radar of public awareness. It may also sound all a bit reminiscent of genetic engineering and in fact synbio is often dubbed ‘extreme genetic engineering’ – the difference being that the field of manipulating life has come a long way since scientists first started splicing and dicing genes back in the early 1970’s. It used to be necessary for genetic engineers to find sections of DNA code in nature, cut them out of existing organisms, and insert them into a host organism in a ‘cut-and paste’ process.
Today synthetic biologists use a DNA printer –called a DNA synthesiser. This can build DNA molecules from scratch and therefore arrange the chemical code any way they choose. This means the instructions for an engineered living organism can be entirely novel. You don’t need to find the code that tells a yeast to glow green. Instead you just write it yourself with computer software.
Indeed it is possible to synthetically construct all of the DNA of a living organism as Craig Venter did in 2011 when he unveiled a microbe, nicknamed Synthia, whose full set of DNA had been artificially printed out by a machine – what he called the first living organism whose parent was a computer.
Today most synthetic biology companies are printing out ‘genetic programs’ for microbes such as yeast or algae that in turn hijack the functioning of the living cell forcing it to produce an industrially useful compound. For example Evolva, a Swiss-American synthetic biology company has re-engineered yeast to make the key compounds from the spice saffron, which happens to be the worlds most expensive spice.
Saffron is usually picked from crocus flowers in Iran but Evolva can now brew it in a large vat of engineered yeast in much the same way beer or wine is made. Another synbio yeast developed by Evolva will produce vanillin – vanilla flavour but without a vanilla plant being needed. Yet another yeast synthetically engineered by Evolva makes sweetening compounds from the South American stevia plant, ready for diet soda drinks – but with no stevia leaves anywhere in sight.
Because the ingredients are made in a ‘brewing’ process the companies believe they can label them as ‘natural’ – pitting the synbio compounds directly against botanically-sourced equivalents. This prospect of lab-grown food and consumer ingredients may be a boon to the 22 billion dollar flavour and fragrance industry but, especially with false ‘natural’ claims, is reason enough for tropical farmers to become alarmed.
Every hectare of natural saffron growing in Iran provides jobs for up to 270 people per day (In Iran saffron is the third most important export crop after petroleum and pistachios). Lab-grown saffron threatens those jobs. An estimated 200,000 people grow, tend and cure vanilla beans in Madagascar, Comoros, Reunion, Mexico, Uganda and elsewhere. Such farmers already have precarious livelihoods and have suffered because of the success of chemically synthetic vanilla.
Not only are livelihoods threatened by synbio vanillin but also the ecosystems with which these lives are entwined. Vanilla farming is closely tied to rainforest protection because the fickle natural vines require intact forests to thrive. When the price of vanilla crashes Madagascan vanilla farmers are often forced to hack away the forest to plant rice on eroding hillsides.
Another synthetic biology ingredient now entering the market, synbio vetiver oil for fragrances, stands to directly displace natural vetiver grass grown by 60,000 farmers from Haiti – some of the poorest farmers in the western hemisphere. Vetiver may provide close to half of Haiti’s agricultural export income. It’s also an excellent guard against soil erosion.
Once again livelihoods and conservation will both suffer from the commercialisation of synthetic biology. Of course the emerging synthetic biology industry can’t do away with farmers altogether. Vats of engineered yeast or algae require vast quantities of sugar that is in turn sourced from monoculture industrial corn or sugarcane plantations.
To date all the largest synbio companies have set up manufacturing plants in Brazil, taking advantage of that country’s expanding sugar plantings. Cane sugar may be sweet to eat but it has a very bitter side too – water hungry, chemical laden and often harvested by slave labour, sugar cane expansion is driving destruction of Brazil’s precious Cerrado region, home to 5% of earth’s biodiversity.
Sugar cane expansion is also pushing back the agricultural frontier – driving soy and cattle farming deeper into what used to be the Amazon rainforest. And then of course there’s the hot button question of safety. Old-fashioned genetic engineering has faced 40 years of global controversy because of the unexpected and unpredictable side-effects of mucking around with the genetic code. synthetic biology only intensifies the uncertainties. Synthetic biology techniques create highly novel sequences of genetic code that are often designed inside a computer but then unleashed in a living organism.
How that synthetically modified organism will grow, adapt, behave and change over time is at best speculation since synthetic biologists have so far failed to develop agreed protocols for assessing their artificial creations. Some unpleasant scenarios are easier to imagine than others. What if an algae engineered to produce gasoline (this has been done) escapes and starts to reproduce in rivers, streams and oceans?
In this case the escaped organism may be a living oil slick. If the engineered organism produces patchouli or vanilla the living pollution may smell nicer but the ecological effects could still be significant. The uncertainty of how to even assess synthetically modified organisms has so far led the emerging industry to claim that they can keep their creations contained but now a new wave of synbio organisms are being developed that are intended for environmental release.
In April 2013 a group of ‘bio-hackers’ from California used the social media fund-raising website Kickstarter to raise almost half a million dollars to commercialise a synthetic biology plant that glows in the dark. In exchange for seed funding the ‘glowing plant project; promised to send 100’s of thousands of bioengineered seeds to over 6000 random individuals across North America – in effect a large unregulated release of a synthetic organism. Because the technology is so new the US Department of Agriculture has declared itself unable to regulate it and despite vocal opposition from ecologists the Glowing Plant company will start mailing out its synbio plants in September 2014.
Meanwhile other synthetic biologists are proposing using live engineered algae in fracking fluids or as biopesticides on crops. At the crazier end, a few scientists are even proposing using synthetic biology to bring back extinct species (called de-extinction). The Revive and Restore foundation is working on de-extincting the North American passenger pigeon. Synthetic biologist George Church has speculated on bringing back the woolly mammoth and even Neanderthals.
Such proposals verge on entertainment rather than serious science however they are attracting interest from NGO’s who run zoo’s, sensing perhaps the lucrative profits in displaying de-extincted animals to the public. As the field of synthetic biology races ahead, regulators are very much lagging behind. This year the 193 countries of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity will belatedly begin to grapple with oversight of synthetic biology, facing calls from civil society for a moratorium on any commercial and environmental release. Already an international fight is brewing between a handful of rich countries who back the brave new synbio industry and those tropical nations whose farmers and forests stand to lose from the changes synthetic biology is about to unleash.