Now They're Selling Synthetic Biology as Food?

Synthetic biology is a fascinating area of research, but its practitioners really seem to be flailing when it comes to commercial justification. The most highly publicized product has been synthetic artemisinin, a malaria treatment, which reached the market last year but seems to be of little commercial value and is probably socially harmful — all in all, a mistake, for various reasons described below. Right behind that has been the on-again, off-again, now on-again, attention given to biofuels, which have long been "the fuel of the future, and always will be."

Now it seems that the artificial food industry is taking up the tattered banner. New Scientist recently published a useful overview of the commercial market for synthetic biology products. Colin Barras, who wrote it, identifies a variety of synthetic food additives and flavorings that are on or close to market. Unsurprisingly, none of them seems likely to feed the starving.

Valencene, a citrus flavor, is already quietly on sale, from Allylix (a California company with investment from the German chemical giant BASF) and Isobionics, which is based in the Netherlands. The same two companies also make nootkatone, a flavor (and insect repellent) originally derived from grapefruit. Other food-type products that are in the pipeline for synthetic production include:

saffron, the most expensive spice in the world, thus ripe for replacement
stevia, a zero-calorie sweetener
resveratrol, a grape-based health supplement of unproven value

But the big struggle may be about vanilla. Evolva, a Swiss company, has found a biological way to make synthetic vanillin that it claims tastes better and costs less than the chemical version that has been on sale since the 19th century. Friends of the Earth is doing sterling work alerting the public, and encouraging a consumer backlash, focused in particular on ice cream. (Their efforts include a petition to Haagen Dazs, Dreyer's, Edy's, Baskin Robbins and other ice cream makers; more information with links to a social-media campaign is here.)

Despite some obligatory greenwashing, these food-type products are being made for purely commercial reasons; the hope is that they will be cheaper than the currently sold alternatives. (Synthetic resveratrol flopped once, but Evolva hopes to improve manufacturing efficiency.)

That puts them in a different category than artemisinin, whose development was financed by a $42 million grant from the Gates Foundation; no pharmaceutical company would put up the cash. It was touted quite deliberately as a flagship product, as these three quotes from the Barras article, taken together, demonstrate:

"We thought, gosh — this is something we could make." — Jay Keasling, founder of Amryis, the company that developed artemisinin, when assessing possible molecules to synthesize
"What's more inspiring than trying to benefit that many people on the planet? It's almost like the Apollo project — it's going to get kids into science and technology." — Rob Carlson, Biodesic
"The artemisinin project is most useful because it reminded people that biology is not just a science but also a technology for making stuff." — Drew Endy, Stanford

Note that none of these even suggest that artemisinin is a good product. It's not. This article (like others before) lays out clearly that synthetic artemisinin is not needed and is hurting small farmers. Moreover, even if it were justifiable, chemical rather than biological synthesis would have been an easier and quicker approach. But making the product was never really the point; the point was to prove that the science could be commercialized — and heal the sick too. As Michael Pollan wrote in 2001 about "golden rice" (which is still not ready), it is a "purely rhetorical technology."

Amyris, the company, keeps stumbling on (check the stock price over the last five years), though there has been talk of bankruptcy. Keasling left years ago, having made some $17 million when the company went public, and the French pharmaceutical company Sanofi took over the artemisinin project. Sanofi almost tripled the efficiency of the final process with better chemistry, and is committed to "a no-profit, no-loss production model." Amyris is now working on cosmetics, fragrances, polymers, solvents and lubricants as well as fuels, with a variety of partners. Something may hit!

Artemisinin did succeed in putting synthetic biology into the public consciousness, albeit under a false flag. These food additives may be sneakier. They too may devastate the economy of large numbers of small landholders; they may or may not have negative environmental or even health effects; but, unless a sustained campaign highlights them, they are likely to fly under the radar.

And then, someone will point to them and say, "What's the problem with , nootkatone's been on the market for years?"

Posted by Pete Shanks on April 16th, 2014