Activists raise warning flags about 'synthetic biology' ingredients

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Activists raise warning flags about 'synthetic biology' ingredients

Related tags Vanilla Dna

Opponents of genetic modification say there is a new, potentially more powerful technology to contend with: synthetic biology.  Purveyors of natural products who are concerned about this technique have coined the term for the way in which scientists have created single-celled organisms to secrete various molecules of interest in a fermentation setting.

The technology was the subject of a session at the recent Expo East trade show in Baltimore, MD.  Of particular concern for presenters and attendees was the way in which substances produced via this method—be they colors, flavors, sweeteners or other bioactive molecules—are being marketed as ‘natural.’

Rush to market

The opposition to this technology is framed in a similar way to the arguments against genetically modified organisms. There has been a rush to market without adequate assessment, opponents say.

“There is very little information on the risks and impact on health and the environment. ‘Synbio’ ingredients are entering our products without adequate safety testing and without being disclosed on labels,”​ said Dana Perls of the organization Friends of the Earth, who chaired the session, which was titled “GMOs 2.0: What You Need to Know About Synthetic Biology.”​ 

Other speakers included Jim Thomas, program director at ETC Group; Michael Hansen, PhD, senior scientist for Consumers Union; John Roulac, founder and CEO of Nutiva; and Melody Meyer, vice president of policy and industry relations at distributor UNFI.

Vast potential market

Thomas said the technology has gained considerable momentum in recent years and claimed that it has flown mostly under the radar, at least as far as the labeling of these ingredients is concerned.  The technology has been used to produce vanillin, stevia and a number of other ingredients. The global market for these ingredients is expected to exceed $38 billion by 2020, he said.

The key point is that while the more familar GM techniques are about modifying existing organisms, this new approach is really about the "engineering of new life forms​", he said.

“Up to now genetic engineering has been something of an artisanal process. Synthetic biology is ‘real engineering,’ according to the practitioners,”​ Thomas said.

New forms of life

The underlying technology is new in that it can spit out strings of DNA with specific base pair sequences that can then be inserted into specific spots on a DNA strand in an algal or yeast cell, for example. Rather than snipping DNA portions that pertain to certain traits from one organism and moving that to another, as in the more familiar genetic engineering, synthetic biology can create new traits from whole cloth, Thomas said.

The result, when incorporated into an algal or yeast DNA strand, gives rise to an entirely new organism that will secrete the things you are looking for, he claimed.

Undercutting botanical ingredients

Thomas used vanilla as a case study in how this technology is finding traction in the marketplace.  Artificial vanillin has been on the market for many years, and is labeled as such. Consumers who value natural vanilla can find it on labels and choose to pay for it. But a loophole in federal law appears to allow vanillin (the active constituent of vanilla flavor) produced via synthetic biology to come to market under a ‘natural’ banner, he said.  

According to FDA, a natural flavor can arise from a long list of sources and processes. The end of that list includes the following phrase: “or fementation products thereof.”​  No one argues that fermented soy, for example, is not a natural flavor. But what if the fermenting organism didn’t come from nature, but was made in a biotech lab?

“That was a pretty good definition, but it was written long before these synthetic products came on the scene,​” said Hanson of Consumers Union.

“By claiming this is natural you are going up against the truly naturally vanilla from Madagascar and elsewhere,” ​Thomas said. “Now we have synbio orange oil and grapefruit oil and synbio squalene on the market. In development there is synthetic saffron and synthetically fermented stevia from Cargill and Evolva and Stevia First. We have even seen the development of synthetically fermented cow’s milk,”​ Thomas said.

Advocating for safety assessment

Friends of the Earth is organizing a campaign to pressure FDA into refining the definition of what ‘fermentation’ means and to label ingredients produced via synthetic biology as such.  Prewritten letters to send to FDA were passed out to attendees at the session.

“We want to keep GMOs 2.0 out of organic,”​ Perls said.

"The proponents of this technology are working with some very large brands and it’s kind of like a black box and they are not telling us what is going on,”​ said Roulac of Nutiva.

“We don’t have any system of international assessment of new technology platforms like this,” ​Hansen said. “There is this notion that bacteria can just be treated like little machines. Organisms are complex wholes. We need to have something in place to prove the safety of new technologies.”

Evolva CEO: We’re not trying to hide what we do

However, Neil Goldsmith, CEO of Swiss synthetic biology pioneer Evolva, which is working on saffron, steviol glycosides, resveratrol and vanillin produced via fermentation of baker's yeast, told FoodNavigator-USA it was important to note that the yeast is used as a processing aid, and is not present in the final product. The vanillin it produces has also gone through the FEMA GRAS process (determined safe by the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association expert panel).

As for the 'natural' issue, he said, what many people may not realize is that there is already vanillin on the market that does not come from the vanilla plant, but is marketed as ‘natural’. And firms have been marketing this ‘natural’ vanillin via a fermentation process from ferulic acid from rice bran or other raw materials for years - at a significantly lower price than what food companies pay for the stuff from vanilla seed pods - and it has had no effect on the Madagascan vanilla market.

“Production of vanilla ​[orchids] has actually increased significantly since these ‘natural vanillin’ products became available," ​he said. "I just don’t think companies that are using Madagascan vanilla extract are going to switch to our product. It’s a different market.”

Asked about the concerns raised by Friends of the Earth and others, he said: “We’re not trying to ‘neutralize’ our critics​. We're listening to them. I think when you are producing something that consumers are going to eat, they are putting their trust in you, so we believe in transparency. We’re not trying to hide what we do.”

Click HERE​ to read our interview with the CEO of Swiss synthetic biology firm Evolva.

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Posted by Tim,

Re: Harry - your post makes almost no sense...."all tests"? impossible and completely untrue. "add to deteriorating health"? highly dubious - of whom? humans? evidence? "impaired immune systems"? what evidence is there for this?
we need look into this technology honestly and look at the facts with an informed discussion and not jump to completely nonsensical conclusions based on internet hearsay and fabrications.
I have no comment on the "natural" issue, but a compound that is analyzed and determined to be 100% identical the compound made by other sources is exactly that. the synthetic aspect (the microbe used to make it) is not even in the final product...

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Posted by harry,

Sythetic biology? All tests over may years indicate that these products add to deteriorating health. Continuing tests tests have shown that recovery from illness may be reduced or stopped when synthetic products are used in any form.

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