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Synthetic biology and the future of food. In conversation with ‘biology by design’ with Ginkgo Bioworks

Right now, we’re just scratching the surface when it comes to the potential applications of synthetic biology in the food industry, says Boyle (twitter tagline: ‘I was a synthetic biologist before it was cool’​) who joined Ginkgo in 2012, and spent the next decade showing that “biology is programmable… all living things are programmed by DNA. What we do is read that code and write it.”

In a nutshell, Ginkgo is sequencing the genetic code (strings of DNA, like a computer code) that instructs plants and animals to produce any given substance (eg. Reb M or myoglobin) and then synthesizing DNA (effectively writing a computer program) that will instruct another organism, such as a yeast cell, to express the same substance.

Synthetic biology in food production

To those wondering whether this sounds like a bad sci-fi movie, rather than something that could make our food system better, Boyle says the ability to program biology could have myriad applications at every level of the food supply chain, and doesn’t mean ’70s-style space food.

For example, if you can use synthetic biology to re-tool bacteria in soil to more effectively convert nitrogen from the air into food, he says, you could eliminate the need for synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

Similarly, if you can engineer microbes to produce flavors that are found in plants, but are routinely synthesized from petrochemicals because we can’t grow enough plants to meet demand (the vast majority of vanillin, for example, is synthetic) we can reduce our reliability on oil.

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