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The menu of the future, courtesy of synthetic biology

The menu of the future, courtesy of synthetic biology hero image

Climate change, population growth, shrinking agricultural land, and the obesity epidemic are conspiring to disrupt what we eat—and in some cases, making it harder for the world’s most nutritionally at-risk people to eat at all. Luckily, synthetic biology is coming to the rescue.

Food created using synthetic biology is here already—from Burger King’s Impossible Whopper to vegan melting cheeses, they are changing the way we think about food and 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, such as a mosquito’s ability to spread malaria,” notes Civil Eats.

How do they do it? Synthetic biologists start by identifying the gene sequences responsible for certain qualities in food, like the beefiness of beef or the sweetness of sugar. Typically, what we are talking about is a protein, and when that protein is recognized it is then recreated chemically in a lab and placed in yeast or bacteria cells. Fermentation mass produces these proteins which become food or fiber ingredients.

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 and resisted disease, and which was strong enough that it could support its own weight. 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, reports another, gene modification is improving the nutrient profiles of crops, particularly corn and rice.

Yet it is the beef industry where the real gains will be made. Gene selection 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.

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 the company was picked by Disney as the preferred plant-based burger supplier for its menus. Competitor Beyond Meat is marketing faux beef, sausage, and hamburger crumbles to grocery stores. Farming giant Cargill recently announced it was edging into the market as well.

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 sold out of its ice cream.

And don’t forget that other valuable bovine byproduct, leather. Modern Meadow manufactures sheets of collagen using engineered cells which, once pressed and tanned, are virtually identical to cow leather.

What’s next? The role of synbio in food is bright, wrote Food for Thought CEO Christine Gould for Medium.

“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 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.”

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