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Synbio ingredients have vast market penetration, new list shows

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By Hank Schultz

17-Mar-2017
Last updated on 17-Mar-2017 at 17:12 GMT2017-03-17T17:12:30Z

Jim Thomas of ECT Group talks with Hank Schultz of NutraIngredients-USA at the Expo West trade show in Anaheim, CA. NIU-USA photo.

Jim Thomas of ECT Group talks with Hank Schultz of NutraIngredients-USA at the Expo West trade show in Anaheim, CA. NIU-USA photo.

Synthetic biology, or GMO 2.0 as some are calling it, has vastly more penetration in the marketplace than was previously believed. That’s the takeaway from the assembly of the first list of such ingredients.

Jim Thomas is program director at the ETC Group, a non-profit organization based in Canada that tracks the effect of emerging technologies. The group has put together a database showing where ingredients produced via fermentation using modified organisms are turning up in the market.  In the past the group has looked at a couple of well-publicized cases, such as the production of vanillin from modified organisms.  In an interview at the Expo West trade show recently in Anaheim, CA, Thomas told NutraIngredients-USA that the full list was an eye-opener, in that substances that arise from this technology can now be found everywhere.

“We were talking with natural products companies and others who were concerned because they didn’t want to inadvertently be including these ingredients in their foods. We thought there would be a handful, but what surprised us was how widely these new ingredients are getting into new product categories.  This is everything from cosmetics and cleaning products through to foods and flavors. Supplements obviously is a big area. We have now about 350 entries in the database and that’s just the beginning,” he said.

Vast potential market

Thomas said this technology, which is now gaining so much momentum, has flown mostly under the radar, at least as far as the labeling of these ingredients is concerned. The global market for these ingredients is expected to exceed $34 billion by 2020, he said.

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

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

New forms of life

The underlying technology is a new, rapid and inexpensive printing technique that can spit out strings of DNA with specific amino acid 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 said.

Undercutting botanical ingredients

At a meeting in Baltimore in 2015, 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 the flavor of natural vanilla can find it on labels and choose to pay for it. But a loophole in federal law allows vanillin (the active constituent of vanilla flavor) produced via synthetic biology to come to market under a ‘natural’ banner.  According to FDA, a natural flavor can arise from a long list of products and processes. At the end of that list there is included the following phrase: “or fermentation 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 came from a biotech lab?  Thomas said the new database, which was a challenge to develop because some in the field would prefer not to advertise where these ingredients are being employed, will help brand holders and consumers make that choice for themselves.

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organic cheese uses GMO rennet

Genetic engineering has been used for many decades to produce our food. For example, Rennet, aka chymosin, is an enzyme which originally came from the stomach of an dead baby calf and is used to make cheese. GE microbes have been engineered to produce rennet and this rennet is used by organic cheese makers as well as conventional cheese makers. - It is indistinguishable for the rennet that comes from a calf. That we use rennet from GE microbes is largely due to economic reasons - there are simply not enough dead baby calves to get the amount of rennet required for all the cheese we make - however there are far more obvious and kinder benefits to the use of this technology here too. And there are many other such beneficial examples of using this technology in the food we eat today. Vegan fish oil comes from a microbe and we no longer get our cosmetic emollients from a sharks liver because we have engineered a microbe to make it instead. In fact, many of the traditional ingredients we use every day in our food, household products, cosmetics or perfumes cannot be sourced humanely or sustainably, so before we rush to judge this technology, we should consider the benefits it offers and the alternatives to its use. And we should remember that nothing in the food world is truly "natural". Everything, from the cow, to corn in our cornflakes and the humble potato has been genetically engineered so it hardly resembles the original organism from which it came. Just because it's familiar to us doesn't make it any more natural than the microbes that are engineered using a technique called synthetic biology.

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Posted by thejustonemorefactmommy
23 March 2017 | 20h382017-03-23T20:38:34Z

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