Computer generated DNA may already be in our food system.
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), in which a gene from one organism is inserted into another, have been a part of the American food system since 1996. New on the scene is a technology called synthetic biology (synbio for short) that takes genetic engineering to the next level.
Rather than transferring just a single gene, scientists can now design whole DNA sequences on a computer and insert them into cells to create totally new organisms.
One company called Evolva has already put a synbio food product on the market – vanillin, a substitute for natural vanilla. Much of the “vanilla” on the market today is synthetic vanillin made from petrochemicals and wood pulp. But since synbio vanillin is made from yeast (by inserting computer-generated DNA and allowing it to ferment) Evolva says it can market the new product as having “greater naturalness” than traditional synthetic vanillin.
But what is so “natural” about food created with DNA that has never occurred in nature?
Since synbio is largely unregulated by the U.S. government and Evolva isn’t telling us who they’ve sold synbio vanillin to, the new synthetic material may already be in cake mixes and ice creams across the country. The only potential liability facing Evolva is the threat of consumer rejection, and since synbio vanillin isn’t categorized as a GMO and won’t appear on ingredient lists, only time will tell if and when consumers will have enough knowledge to have a strong reaction.
Synbio’s quiet and relatively unacknowledged entrance to the American food system is reminiscent of that of GMOs, which were introduced to American farms without the public’s consent almost 30 years ago and have only recently become a popular subject of contention and controversy. We can hope that synbio food products will become public knowledge much sooner through being tied up with the current GMO conversation.
Synbio proponents contend that engineered yeast products are better for the Earth, since they are made in a lab and don’t take up land to produce. But an advocacy group called Friends of the Earth questions how much sugar is required to feed the yeast. “If you scale this up,” said Dana Perls, a campaigner with Friends of the Earth, “it could hugely exacerbate the environmental impacts of sugarcane plantations, which are already responsible for huge amounts of destruction in biodiversity hot spots,” Perls says. “I think Evolva’s claims of sustainability are questionable at best.”
Perls also argues that maintaining the growth of the vanilla orchid helps protect local forests and economies. “Without a market for truly natural vanilla, grown and harvested by hand in rain forests in countries such as Madagascar and Mexico, both the vanilla farmers and the forests they preserve may be displaced in favor of industrial-scale plantations for soy, beef and sugar.”
But what I’m more so concerned about is what happens to synbio DNA once you’ve eaten it.
It’s well documented that food can change the way your current genes express themselves (epigenetics). But can you actually inherit or absorb the DNA you eat, in what is known as a horizontal gene transfer between species?
One of the main arguments Monsanto and other GMO fans turn to is that DNA is broken up in the process of digestion and thus, cannot enter the circulatory system and harm the body. A recent study from the peer reviewed Public Library of Science (PLOS) claims the exact opposite, stating that they found whole, food-derived genes in blood samples, and that one subject even had more plant DNA than human DNA in their blood. Once DNA is in the blood, it’s possible that it can affect cell function and have other unforeseen affects. See this article and this article for more studies.
The bigger picture
DNA is the set of instructions that dictates the design of all living things.
DNA has been evolving since life on Earth began about 3.8 billion years ago, and has manifested itself in millions of different ways. Single celled organisms like bacteria evolved into multicelled organisms, then plants like algae, then anthopods like insects and crabs, then fish and so on and so on.
All life except for that first single celled organism represents a modification from a prior organism, and as a result of that we all share a similar genetic makeup. Humans share about 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees, for example, and 50% of our DNA with bananas. It’s true! Take a look at the Tree of Life to see how life on Earth has unfolded.
According to Sir John Sulston, Director of the Sanger Institute (a genome research center), “This again reminds us of the unity of life – the fact that genes are not purpose-made for each organism, but rather evolution keeps on re-using its inventions over time.” (Go here for more info about the human genome.)
“Although we like to think we are special, our genes bring us down to Earth. DNA is what ties the entire living world together. It may well account for the extraordinary diversity among organisms but it also serves to underline their common origins – we all evolved from the same soup of chemicals… By studying non-human genomes, we gain insight into our own.” Monise Durrani, BBC Science
In other words, modern DNA holds billions of years of evolutionary wisdom, much of which we don’t understand. For example, although we finished mapping the human genome in 2003, 97% of it is labeled as “junk” because scientists don’t yet understand how it functions. Scientists also don’t have an agreed upon answer for how life originally began, and don’t fully understand how evolution happens.
Even though there’s a lot that scientists don’t know, they do have a new power to produce specific, desired traits from plants and animals, and the technology is exciting to see. GMO salmon that grow at twice the normal rate! Plants that glow!
But while we can successfully tinker with specific traits, how do we know what the repercussions are for the genome of an organism as a whole? And considering how interconnected life on Earth is, how can we expect to predict how synthetic DNA will evolve or interact with other living organisms on Earth, like us?
Friends of the Earth claim, “The ways in which synthetic organisms will interact with the natural environment are unpredictable and potentially devastating and permanent. While other types of pollution can be cleaned up and do not breed, synthetic biological creations are designed to self-replicate and, once released into the environment, they will be impossible to recall. A synthetic organism designed for a specific task, such as eating up oil from oil spills in the ocean, could swap genes with naturally occurring organisms and outcompete them, potentially disrupting entire ecosystems as a new class of invasive species.”
Whether you think synthetic biology and genetic engineering are a good or a bad thing, shouldn’t this new technology garner more attention in our conversation about the modern American food system?
Don’t want to be a part of the huge, unprecedented human experiment that is synbio and genetic engineering in the U.S.?
GMOs are in 75-80% of processed foods in America today, and while some states have taken steps to require labeling, we’re much more lackadaisical about regulation than the rest of the world; GMOs have been completely banned or seriously restricted by 60 other countries, including the EU and Australia. You can choose certified organic foods to avoid conventional GMOs, although since synbio foods are not categorized as GMOs and are unregulated, they may not be excluded from organics – not sure on that one! Whole, organic foods are always your best bet.
What do you think? Can we make food better than nature?