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5 Inspiring Ways Synthetic Biology Will Revolutionize Food and Agriculture

Synthetic biology is one of the fastest growing and most exciting areas of science — and a perfect example of next-generation innovation. Combining disciplines like biology, design, engineering and software development, synbio allows us to shape natural systems and even create entirely new ones from scratch.

Researchers, engineers and entrepreneurs are already using synbio in some inspiring ways. In the past few years, they’ve created an artificial photosynthesis process, an engineered bacteria to invade cancer cells, and are even turning agriculture waste into eco-friendly chemicals — and these examples barely scratch the surface. The global synthetic biology market is quickly growing, and is projected to grow to $16 billion by 2018.

Any new or disruptive technology that threatens the status quo can cause confusion and even spark controversy, but in the case of synbio, I’m excited about its potential to help solve some of the biggest problems we face in the food and agriculture industry.

In my work and research at the Thought For Food Foundation, I’ve seen firsthand how innovators around the world are approaching this field with an entrepreneurial mindset — combining disciplines, uprooting entrenched assumptions, and encouraging openness and collaboration — to create a positive impact, particularly in the realm of food security.

Here are five of the most exciting ways synthetic biology is transforming the food and ag industry, and paving the way for a future in which we can eradicate hunger and malnourishment, while also protecting and enhancing our environment.

1. We can design plants from the ground up.

Imagine glowing trees in place of street lamps. Mushrooms that grow into furniture. Crops that require less pesticides and resist drought. These are just some of the ways we can develop a more sustainable and exciting future using synthetic biology approaches in plants.

We are entering a biological era. If the past decades were defined by the industrial and digital revolutions, the future is all about making biology work for and with us.

Synthetic biology enables us to apply design and engineering principles to plant science. We can pinpoint what we want plants to do, and then create that process by precisely engineering biological systems.

Biology is following the general footsteps of the computer industry — except in this case, DNA is our programming language. With genome sequencing, we can read DNA, which provides us with lots of important information. Once we read this information, we have to understand what the code is saying. Machine learning and data analysis are helping us in this regard, but writing the code is where it gets most interesting. After all, writing is where we can use our imaginations and be creative!

In the early days, recombining DNA was slow and difficult. But technology is getting faster, better and cheaper every day. You don’t even need a lab — it’s all gone digital. Software tools combined with genome editing technologies allow us to do things that were simply impossible to imagine just 15 years ago.

2. We can find ethical, sustainable and efficient solutions to our food needs.

With synthetic biology, we can rethink everything we know about how food is produced. For example, we can produce cow’s milk without needing the actual cow, or eggs that haven’t been laid by chickens. One company called Real Vegan Cheese is made up of a team of biologists who are creating a substance that has the same molecular identity as cow’s milk. This milk is then used to make vegan cheese — a cheese made from what is essentially real cow’s milk — only with zero animal involvement!

Then there’s the New Harvest initiative. Led by Isha Datar, a power woman I had the chance to share the stage with recently at the Hello Tomorrow Summit in Paris, this organization funds open, public, collaborative research to revolutionize the production of animal products without the actual animals. Some of their projects include Perfect Day Foods, a company making dairy products without cows; Clara Foods, who are using cell culture to make egg whites; and an avian tissue research project with the goal of producing turkey and chicken meat without animals.

Synthetic biology helps us optimize the unseen.

Cellular agriculture has endless possibilities, including the ability to make more nutrient-packed foods with a longer shelf life, as well as foods tailored for specific uses and preferences, such as meat with lower saturated fat, lactose-free milk, cholesterol-free eggs, or egg whites specifically intended for different baked goods like meringues or fluffy angel food cakes.

3. We can make food safer and more nutritious.

Synthetic biology helps us optimize the unseen. We can improve taste and nutritional properties, and create new foods like algae butter and hypoallergenic peanuts. We can help plants grow with less water or land, and design hypersensitive systems at the production level to keep the food we eat safer.

One company, Sample6, is working toward finding and eliminating potentially life-threatening bacterium in food before it hits shelves. Its integrated systems quickly and easily detect harmful or unwanted bacteria in products for a wide variety of industries, including food and healthcare. For example, they’ve developed a test kit that can detect Listeria while food is still in the processing plant. Such kits provide results in just three to four hours, while the traditional process can take up to 48 hours.

An exciting company working to make food more nutrient-rich is Unibiome (formerly Peer-to-Peer Probiotics), 2015 TFF Challenge Finalists. They are engineering microbes to improve the vitamin content in fermented foods like yogurt, cheese and cereal-based foods. Since these are traditional foods all over the world, creating versions with healthier microbial contents will ensure more people in different regions have access to vital nutrients. The company is building an open-source, peer-to-peer sharing model to distribute their probiotics in developing nations.

4. Everyone — including you — has the tools to work with this technology.

For me, the most inspiring aspect of synbio is that individuals and startups — not big multinationals — are the vanguards of this field. A DIY (do-it-yourself) movement has gained momentum in this space, with the goal of enabling more people to use syn bio approaches through increased openness and sharing. (check out the DIY Bio code of conduct, which includes a pledge to education, transparency and responsibility.)

DIY bio labs like BioCurious and Genspace are popping up all over the world. Some companoies are even offering consumer-level products and kits containing materials so anyone can experiment and play with biology without needing access to a lab. Amino Labs, for example, has a simulator that lets you become a virtual bioengineer and sends a kit that allows you to set up your own lab. Similarly, The Odin offers a DIY Bacterial Gene Engineering CRISPR Kit that teaches molecular biology and gene engineering techniques with enough material to conduct five at-home experiments. Then there’s Bento Labs, which offers a mobile DNA lab that allows you to extract, copy and visualize DNA — anywhere you want.

The democratization of synbio enables innovators to “play with their food” in ways that simply wasn’t imaginable before — even updating and improving how we prepare food at home for consumption. Molecular gastronomy and science-based cooking techniques like immersion baths are just the beginning. My friend John Cumbers, who founded SynBioBeta, the activity hub for the synthetic biology industry, is especially excited about the impact of fermentation on the future of food. “From kombucha, to beer and cheese, the ability for microbes to cook our food and make flavors and textures from biological pathways inside yeast and bacteria is really exciting,” he told me.

In the future, anyone, anywhere can have ideas and turn them into reality in the same way we can quickly create mobile apps today.

5. This is just the beginning. A wave of innovation is upon us.

Competitions are also fostering communities of young innovators interested in working and collaborating in the field of synthetic biology.

Of course, there’s our TFF Challenge (learn more here), where we are actively seeking synbio projects!

Another competition specifically focused on engaging new minds and building new ideas in this field is the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, which encourages students to work and build within biological systems. Our TFF team is excited to take part in the iGEM jamboree this year, taking place in Boston from October 27–31, 2016.

Note: If you are a synbio researcher or enthusiast looking to get your innovation out of the lab and into the real world, come talk to us — we can help! Last year’s iGEM team, Peer-to-Peer Probiotics (now called Unibiome), joined our Challenge, won a cash prize, and went on to participate in the accelerator Indie Bio to gain further insight and experience in developing their startup venture.

Conclusion

Synthetic biology is an exciting emerging field with the potential to solve some of the most pressing problems on the planet. That said, any paradigm shift comes with its own set of challenges. We’ll need to address major issues related to the public perception, ethics and government regulation, as a start.

There’s lots of room for passionate young innovators to get involved in shaping the future of this technology. In the future we are working toward, every man, woman and child has adequate access to safe, nutritious food. We’re able to feed a planet of 9+ billion people without compromising our natural resources. And every day that passes, we discover new, surprising ways to improve our food systems.

NOTE! if you want to hear more about the DIY bio movement, listen to our TFF podcast on Hacker Values, featuring Daniel Grushkin of GenSpace and Biodesign Challenge!