Some scientists are nervous about genetically engineered food
Synthetic food companies could gravely impact our health, environment, and economy, but the fact is that we’re in the dark
This story originally appeared on Civil Eats.
Impossible’s “bleeding” veggie burger, shrimp made of algae, and vegan cheeses that melt are all making their way into restaurants and on to supermarket shelves, offering consumers a new generation of plant-based proteins that look, act, and taste far more like the real thing than ever before.
What consumers may not realise, however, is that many of these new foods are made using synthetic biology, an emerging science that applies principles of genetic engineering to create life forms from scratch.
Originally used to produce medicines, biofuels, and super bacteria designed to eat oil spills, synthetic biology is increasingly being applied to the production of food and fibre — from vegan burgers to “spider silk,” feed for farmed fish, synthetic flavours, and animal-free egg whites. A California accelerator, IndieBio, is helping to churn out many of these new businesses. Synthetic biology applications span from simple gene editing combined with fermentation processes, to cellular meats that culture food products from animal cells in the lab, to gene drive applications intended to change an organism’s genetics in the environment, such as a mosquito’s ability to spread malaria. For purposes of this discussion, we focus on products and processes that rely on gene editing combined with fermentation.
Synthetic biologists identify the gene sequences that give food or fiber certain qualities, like the gooiness of cheese or the tensile strength of silk. Often, it’s a protein produced by plant or animal cells that imparts the desired quality. Once identified, the gene sequence for that protein is created chemically in a lab and inserted into yeast or bacteria cells. Then, much like brewing beer, a fermentation process turns the microbes into tiny factories that mass produce the desired protein — which is then used as a food ingredient or spun into fibre. The Impossible Burger, for example, contains an engineered heme, a protein originally derived from soy plant roots, that gives the burger its pseudo-meat flavour, colour, and texture… Read more…