Synthetic biology

by Dana Perls

This article was originally published in January 2014

ice cream helix

Our food system is changing dramatically, in ways we cannot see. As we race to understand the impacts of genetic engineering (GE) and keep track of the growing lists of GE foods on the market, there is a new synthetic ingredient, straight out of a petri dish, about to enter some favorite foods — from ice cream to birthday cake.

This product, called synbio vanilla, is made through an extreme form of genetic engineering called synthetic biology, a technology that may replace traditional genetic engineering.

Instead of taking existing genes from one natural species and inserting them into another, which is typical in “traditional” genetic engineering, synthetic biologists create an entirely new genetic code on a computer, “print” it out, and then insert it into organisms, such as yeast or algae. Then, through a new synthetic process, the re-programmed yeast or algae is forced to biosynthesize vanillin (vanilla flavoring), or another novel product.

What is synthetic biology?

What is the re-engineering process that lets yeast pump out novel substances? The DNA, which is invented on the computer, is designed to create a new set of directions for the yeast, or what is called a new metabolic pathway. This pathway directs the yeast or algae to produce different substances, such as vanillin, instead of what the yeast and algae would produce naturally, which is beer or oil.

Even though this synthetic vanillin is created by computer and engineered through a fermentation process that does not exist in nature, the synthetic vanillin marketers, Evolva and its partner, International Flavours and Fragrances, are trying to market synbio vanilla as “natural.”

Evolva’s goal is to replace natural vanillin (extracted from vanilla beans) with the unnatural synbio vanilla. Synbio vanilla would be the first major application in food of this new experimental genetic technology.

Vanillin is the primary flavor component of vanilla, the world’s most popular natural flavor. The only way to obtain it naturally is from the cured seed pod of the vanilla orchid. Natural vanilla is produced and harvested by farmers in rainforests in Madagascar, Mexico and across Southeast Asia.

Synthetic biology vanillin is distinct from the artificial vanillin already on the market, although both are engineered in labs. Artificial vanillin is a mix of chemical components. The new synthetic biology vanillin is synthesized by a genetically engineered organism such as yeast. While synthetic biologists claim the yeast’s fermentation process is natural, it requires computer-coded yeast that only exists inside of a lab.

Safety concerns

Like conventional GE products, synbio vanilla virtually is untested, unregulated and anything but “natural” or “sustainable.” But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is likely to accept it as “Generally Recognized As Safe,” which means in practice the companies themselves declare their new additives safe, without first submitting them to the FDA for evaluation and approval.

Synbio vanilla is a concern for reasons beyond ice cream and sodas. As the first major use of synthetic biology in our food, synbio vanilla could set a precedent to allow many more synthetic GE ingredients labeled as “natural” into our food without shoppers knowing.

Some high-value products in the pipeline for development include coconut oil, saffron and ginseng. Many people certainly buy organic products to avoid ingredients such as synbio vanilla, yet there are technically no prohibitions under the National Organic Program to keep synbio ingredients out of organic food.

Environmental concerns

Worse, this new synbio vanilla could speed rainforest destruction and greatly harm sustainable farmers and poor communities that rely on farming vanilla bean orchids in rainforests to survive. Natural vanilla farmers protect intact rainforests by growing the high-valued rainforest orchids that depend on these tropical forests.

If synbio vanilla is allowed to masquerade as “natural” vanilla on product labels, the demand for synbio vanilla could displace the demand for natural vanilla. Without the natural vanilla market adding economic value to the rainforests in these regions, remaining rainforests will not be protected from competing agricultural markets, such as soy, palm oil and sugar.

The demand for sugar needed to feed the yeast engineered for synthetic biology ingredients also could result in more clear-cutting of tropical forests in Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia. These problems will be exacerbated as synthetic biology applications using yeast scale up to meet demand and replace natural flavors and fragrances, including vanilla.

Unregulated, unlabeled

As with other genetically modified organisms (GMOs), it truly is not known if synthetic biology vanillin is safe to eat, or what impacts may occur if the synthetic organisms were to interact with natural organisms or ecosystems. We do not have adequate information to answer these questions. Nor are there any regulations to require this information before products hit the market.

Without testing, regulations and food labeling specific to synthetic biology, we may not be able to identify health or environmental threats until it is too late. Self-auditing is not legal for financial accounting, nor should it be for companies introducing novel and potentially hazardous technologies.

Beyond vanilla

But synbio isn’t just about food. Synbio ingredients are entering personal care products, ranging from fragrances to face creams. Unilever, the third-largest consumer goods company in the world and maker of Dove soap, just announced its multibillion-dollar partnership with Solazyme, a synthetic biology company that will make fatty acids, known as lauric oil, from re-engineered algae.

Lauric acid, naturally sourced from coconut oil, is used in personal care products such as soaps, cosmetics and detergents. Rather than sourcing it from coconut oil, synthetic biologists inject algae with computer-synthesized DNA and re-engineer it to produce a synthetic lauric oil similar to that found in coconut oil or palm-kernel oil.

The ecological risks and cultural and economic impacts of synbio production are unknown completely. Unique and synthetic organisms threaten biological diversity if they escape into the environment — either intentionally or unintentionally from a lab. The re-engineered algae could become an invasive species, displacing wild populations and disrupting ecosystems. Once in the environment, it will be impossible to recall or clean up.

As described by ETC Group, the cultural and economic implications for countries such as the Philippines and its 25 million people, which produce 42.6 percent of the world’s coconut oil, could be devastating.

Friends of the Earth and partner organizations such as Center for Food Safety and ETC Group are working to advocate for government regulations and evaluation of the potential risks of synthetic biology before these extreme GE organisms are put into our food, personal care products, and environment.

Since I-522, Washington state’s initiative on GE labeling, it’s clear Americans want more information about genetically engineered organisms, and synthetic-biology-produced ingredients should cause even more concern, given how little information we have and the high-stakes risks.

As with conventional GMOs, it’s critical that governments require labels on products with synbio ingredients to allow consumers to make informed purchasing decisions. Vanillin produced through synthetic chemistry already must be labeled “artificial,” and so should vanillin produced through synthetic biology.

Ice cream campaign

Ice cream companies are one of the biggest purchasers of natural vanilla flavoring, so rather than rely on FDA to take responsibility for safe food, Friends of the Earth launched a campaign to urge Häagen-Dazs, Dryers and other major ice cream companies to pledge to not use unnatural synbio vanilla in their ice cream. Visit to get involved and learn more.

It’s up to consumers to voice concerns and make it clear we do not want synbio vanilla or any synbio ingredients in foods or products unless or until this new technology is thoroughly assessed.

Also in this issue

News bites, January 2014

FDA to ban trans fats?, Inflammatory foods and depression, Argentina's pesticides and cancer clusters, and more

How to shop at PCC on a budget

Quality, organic foods may carry a higher price tag than their conventional counterparts, but there's no reason you can't be kind to your body, the environment, and your wallet!

PCC Board of Trustees report, January 2014

Board report, 2014 board slate, 2014 nominating committee slate, and more