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How synthetic biology is shaping the menu of the future

From meatless burgers to milkless ice cream, a new wave of animal-free products is coming to stores near you, thanks in part to synthetic biology
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The Takeaway: Climate change, population growth, shrinking agricultural land, and the obesity epidemic are conspiring to disrupt what we eat, and in some cases are making it harder for the world’s most nutritionally at-risk people to eat at all. Synthetic biology food production is stepping in to offer some solutions to these mounting problems. 

From Burger King’s Impossible Whopper to vegan melting cheeses, synthetic biology food production is changing the way we think about food and are pushing the boundaries of what is possible in the field. 

“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,” notes Civil Eats

The modification of foods into more nutritious, hardier, and easier-to-grow varieties has gone on for more than 10,000 years. In the 1940s, American agronomist Norman Borlaug bred a strain of wheat which grew fast resisted disease, and was strong enough to support its own weight. In turn, Borlaug’s “green revolution” helped avert famine: Mexico became self-sufficient in grain, and yields doubled in India and Pakistan. 

Today, efforts are aimed at creating plants which are better adapted at withstanding drought, as noted in one study. Elsewhere, gene modification is improving the nutrient profiles of crops, particularly corn and rice. Yet, s biggest strides in the field will likely come from meat production. 

How is synthetic biology applied to food?

Synthetic biologists alter food by first identifying the gene sequences responsible for certain desired qualities, like the beefiness of beef or the sweetness of sugar. Usually, this is a protein, which is recognized, recreated chemically in a lab, and placed in yeast or bacteria cells. Fermentation mass produces these proteins, which become food or fiber ingredients. 

Synthetic biology’s biggest strides likely to come from beef

Yet, it is the beef industry where the real gains will be made. Gene selection has helped humans turn wild aurochs into today’s beef cattle and dairy cows, and turn wild sheep into today’s wool-bearing mainstays. But many see these staples as environmentally devastating, responsible for methane emissions, rainforest clearing, and global transportation efforts that exacerbate global warming. A number of innovators are working to change those trajectories. Scientists have begun looking to improve livestock by using CRISPR to directly edit the genomes of cows and chickens. Already, brewers are using CRISPR to create hoppy beer without using actual hops, which saves water and standardizes flavor. 

Mosa Meat claims to have gotten the patty rolling with the “world’s first slaughter-free meat,” which dates to 2013; the company uses stem cells for its product.

Impossible Foods extracts heme from yeast to produce a meat alternative that has the same mouthfeel as real meat. The company’s CEO, Pat Brown, recently told Reuters that the company can’t keep up with demand, and coincidentally, was picked by Disney as the preferred plant-based burger supplier for its menus.  

Synthetic biology’s role in creating plant-based dairy products

Synthetic biology is also revolutionizing the cheese industry, reports the Los Angeles Times. Plant-based dairy is nothing new, but start-ups are using new tech to take the concept a step further. Perfect Day brews a substance which looks, tastes, and feels like milk using engineered yeast; the company has repeatedly sold out of its ice cream. 

Synthetic biology and the future of sustainable food

What’s next? It’s important to acknowledge that there is a definite stigma and additional regulatory restrictions for cultured meat. But as with most drug discovery processes , the role of synthetic biology in food is bright, wrote Food for Thought CEO Christine Gould for Medium, with plenty of opportunities for synthetic biology in agriculture and plants. “There’s lots of room for passionate young innovators to get involved in shaping the future of this technology,” wrote Gould. “In the future we are working toward every man, woman and child having 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.”