I first met Jim Thomas, Co-Director of the ETC Group, at a Sustainable Ag and Food Systems Funders conference. Jim had been tracking emerging technologies and their intersection with food and agriculture for some time. When I first heard him speak, in his lilting almost playful cadence, about something called “synthetic biology,” my ears perked up.
He was talking about a new form of genetic engineering that can alter genetics on a worldwide scale – one with little or no government oversight.
Most people think of traditional genetically engineered crops that have been inserted with a gene from another organism. Think corn or soy that has been inserted with the DNA, so it withstands heavy applications of let’s say glyphosate.
This first-generation of GMO’s is called “transgenics,” and its modifications can be easily identified and detected.
Over the last 20 years, consumers have come to realize that this first generation of GMO’s has led to an agrochemical intensification. Transgenic GMO’s contaminate organic seeds and crops because their genes procreate and travel – life cannot be contained, even when genetically-modified.
Today scientists wield a much stronger toolbox to manipulate the genetic codes of almost all organisms – even humans.
The expanded genetic toolbox
The last 10 years has us witnessing an explosion of new approaches and modified materials that strive to bioengineer Nature herself.
The biotech companies have learned from the past. They now know that consumers are wary, so they’re working around those fears, making “friendly claims” on many of these novel products.
They have found a way to label this next generation as non-GMO, natural, plant-based, sustainable and climate-friendly.
This next generation of GMO’s isn’t just modifying crops; it is modifying animals, insects, algae and the microbes in our soil.
The agrochemical companies are changing the agricultural ecosystem in which crops grow.
Modifying the ecosystem is a giant shift from the past.
These companies are moving away from large-scale commodity crops like soy, corn and cotton to more high-value ingredients. They’re evolving from agrochemicals and pesticides to other genetic weapons and introducing products that offer a precision strike approach to farming.
Genetic engineering, artificial intelligence and big data are uniting rapidly.
There are no longer people in the labs.
Companies are now using artificial intelligence, large-scale automation and robotics to perform the actual genetic engineering. Decisions about how to modify organisms are increasingly made by machine learning and algorithms.
These machines can produce tens of thousands of changes in an organism and then sift through them to detect their desired outcomes.
What are these next generation of GMO’s?
Biosynthesized Ingredients or “Synthetic Biology” modifies algae, yeast or bacteria to produce high-value products such as flavors, fragrances or dietary supplements. Once modified, the yeast or algae is fed starch or sugar (usually GMO corn or sugar), and the “natural” process of fermentation begins.
The classic example is genetically engineering yeast that produces vanillin – the flavor molecule found in real vanilla.
Swiss company Evolva produces bioengineered saffron – another high-value flavor.
Companies believe that by changing the genetic makeup of yeast alone, they can make a multitude of natural products like those found in ginseng, truffles, caviar, cocoa and even human breastmilk!
These products are sold in products that may be labeled natural and even non-GMO because the molecule itself isn’t a modified organism– but the yeast that produced it is.
In fact, they argue that the final ingredient is almost molecularly identical to its native cousin, making it very hard to detect, but fail to mention other unwanted substances that may be produced alongside it.
Transient Expression is a technique that genetically hijacks part of an organism so that it produces a novel compound – but doesn’t pass on that change to the next generation. For instance, one company has developed bacteria that infect the leaves of the tobacco plant, and by doing so, tricks the plant into producing a new molecule that is usually found in cloves.
The same approach has been applied to strawberry leaves, so they produce the strawberry flavor that normally would come from the berry.
The end result is not considered to be a GMO because the plant has not been modified in a way that passes on the altered DNA.
Gene editing– By now, most people have heard of CRISPR. You may have even heard about a Chinese scientist who applied CRISPR to creating live human twins.
With gene editing, you aren’t cutting and pasting DNA into an organism. You are going into the organism and changing the genetic sequence of the DNA letter by letter to produce the results you want. Its seen as a more precise and faster way to change an organism’s genes.
Almost every kind of commercial organism has been experimented with using CRISPR techniques. And several are already on your plate and in your pantry, in canola oil and soybean oil to name a few.
Engineered insects– you may have heard of GE insects released in Florida and Brazil to fight disease and pests. Once again, you aren’t modifying the crop itself, but you are changing the environment or ecosystem.
Gene Drives is a controversial technology that changes an organism so that it will ALWAYS pass on those genetically engineered traits to all future generations. Future generations, in turn, will pass it on until it changes the entire population forever.
Imagine the power to change the genetics of entire populations – we now have that power.
With gene drives, we can change or even eradicate entire species from the planet.
There are attempts underway to utilize gene drives in food and agriculture – being led by the California cherry board and the US citrus research board. From eradicating fruit flies or certain weed species, gene drives have the potential to alter life on earth as we know it.
RNAi Sprays– DNA is the main molecule that carries genetic information, and RNA is equally as important. Companies like Bayer (formerly Monsanto) are developing sprays of synthetic RNA to use in fields so that when the sprays are taken up by an insect, they change the genetics of that insect or pest. This is genetic engineering on the field – not in the lab.
Engineered Microbiome- Scientists can now alter the genetics of microbes in the soil to change nitrogen uptake or disease resistance of the plants. This technology of releasing genetically engineered is being tested on thousands of acres in the Midwest by a company called Pivot Bio.
We do not understand the long-term ramifications of engineering our soils.
And this is just the beginning. The truth is DNA is now a digital object that can be rebuilt, copied, spliced, even stored online and sent by email. The ETC group believes that by 2025 all the species in the world will have been sequenced and that digital genetic information can be used to design a multitude of new organisms. When remixing life is like photoshopping pictures, then our food economies will really begin to change in unexpected ways.
Genetic engineering, artificial intelligence and big data may become one in our lifetime.
What we don’t know is, how will these changes affect the genetic ecosystem of our planet?
What will food and farming look like?
How will organic agriculture fit into this genetically-altered future?
You can learn more about the impacts on human health, our economy and the environment at SynBio Watch.