Synthetic Bio Trends

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Synthetic Bio Insights - Food Industry

Based on sources published in the past year, recent insights surrounding synthetic biology as it relates to the food industry revolve around the project Yeast 2.0 and the use of biosensors, gene editing techniques (especially CRISPR), microbiome engineering, and synthetic speciation. These technological advancements serve various purposes, including pesticide and freshness detection and the creation of plants or crops that are superior in terms of yield, nutritional content, and resistance to pests.

BIOSENSORS

Biosensors are genetically-encoded sensors that are considered the first component of a genetic circuit. They are "an intelligent combination of biological components, such as enzymes or bacteria, and technological components that detect physical and chemical changes and transmit them in the form of data." In agriculture, they are often of the plant sentinel biosensor type, where an entire plant is altered to "detect and signal the presence of a specific component in its immediate environment."

Equipped with the precision of electronics and the sensitivity of a living being, biosensors can be viewed as an analytical device designed for substance detection. The mechanics is similar to that of a glucose meter. If the biosensor comes in contact with the substance it is designed to detect, it reacts and translates the interaction with the substance into quantitative data. Enzymes used can vary from one biosensor purpose to another. Biosensors for detecting pesticides and insecticides, for example, often make use of hydrolase enzymes such as butyrylcholinesterase and acetylcholinesterase, while biosensors for measuring freshness often make use of the glucose oxidase enzyme.

Apart from cellular agriculture, which is often associated with the production of cultured meat, biosensors are another important tool in food sustainability. Engineered microorganisms that serve as biosensors can be applied to soil or feedstock to fend off disease agents and to help with the identification of contaminants or pathogens and the improvement of food product quality. Along with other technologies such as gene editing, microbiome engineering, and Yeast 2.0, biosensors have a huge potential to transform agriculture both in the near future and in the long term.

Biosensors are a state-of-the-art but cost-effective way of ensuring the quality of the food we consume. They can be used in food tracing, nutritional content measurement, and pesticide contamination detection. They can also be used to detect antibiotics in milk, heavy metal contents in drinks, soil contamination, and sediment toxicity. According to Viviana Scognamiglio, an Italian National Research Council researcher, "sensor technology is the leading edge of development in almost all farming and food production sectors." Growth in the sensor market is largely driven by advances in biosensors for food sustainability. Biosensing technologies have wide-ranging applications in the area of food production sustainability and can be used to address challenges regarding food safety, food security, food diversity, food packaging, food waste processing, and food creation.

GENE EDITING

A crucial enabling technology for synthetic biology, gene editing involves the editing or subtraction of certain bits of the DNA to control traits. After gene editing, "the cell's genetic structure then repairs itself automatically, minus the targeted gene." CRISPR appears to be the emerging gene editing technique at present. It is a gene editing technique that can be used in selective breeding in place of transgenic engineering. What happens in CRISPR is as follows: (a) gene responsible for undesirable trait is identified, (b) a restriction enzyme (Cas9) and a piece of RNA are created to edit the gene, (c) the RNA and the Cas9 are introduced into the cell, (d) the RNA, considered the "tracking device," finds its paired DNA sequence and binds to it and the Cas9, which, as the "genetic scissors" cuts the DNA strands at the desired location, (e) cell repairs its DNA sequence on its own, this time without the targeted gene, and (f) RNA and Cas9 are removed. Gene editing is different from genetic modification in GMOs or genetically modified organisms, as it does not involve the introduction of new genes. Compared to the creation of GMOs, gene editing is "simpler, cheaper, and faster."

As far as food is concerned, gene editing can be used to develop plants or crops that are better in terms yield, nutrition, and insusceptibility to drought, pests, and extreme weather. What genetics professor Zachary Lippman did with tomatoes is a great example of the application of gene editing in the food industry. Through gene editing, he programmed the tomato plants such that they would produce twice the number of branches and twice the number of tomatoes. Research and development labs, numbering in the hundreds, are hard at work evaluating the potential of CRISPR to address food-related challenges. Among the ideas being explored are wheat with reduced-gluten that can be consumed by people with gluten sensitivity, mushroom that does not brown when cut or bruised, soybeans with lower concentrations of unhealthy fats, virus-resistant cacao, fungus-resistant bananas, mildew-resistant grapes, coffee beans that are naturally decaffeinated, rice and corn varieties with more yield, and tomatoes with improved flavor notes. Gene editing techniques, such as CRISPR and TALENs, allow scientists and researchers to switch plant genes off easily.

MICROBIOME ENGINEERING

Microbiome engineering is the process of producing microbes that serve specific purposes and are better than naturally-occurring microbes. A host microbe with particular features is chosen, and then this microbe's genes are edited or modified with the introduction of genes from other microbes. Microbiome engineering has found its way into food and agriculture, and the technology can be used in the development of microbes that can colonize plants or crops and give them desired characteristics or features. Engineered microbes have significant potential to enhance plant or crop resilience and yield. For example, Joyn Bio, a joint venture between Bayer and synthetic biology business Ginkgo Bioworks, is exploring the use of engineered microbes to address the problem of nitrogen dependence and air pollution. It is engineering microbes that can give plants or crops nitrogen fixation abilities. Crops need nitrogen to thrive, but they cannot access nitrogen in its natural form. Nitrogen has to be "fixed" or broken into specific chemical combinations first, and this is where Joyn Bio comes in.

YEAST 2.0

Yeast 2.0 is the "world’s first synthetic eukaryotic genome project that aims to create a novel, rationalized version of the genome of the yeast species Saccharomyces cerevisiae. The objective of this project is to produce a synthetic version of the aforementioned yeast species, one that maintains the phenotypic integrity of the original version but removes non-essential DNA sequences. Researchers at the Australian Wine Research Institute are presently hard at work to create a hybrid yeast, one that combines Saccharomyces and a synthetic neochromosome that incorporates genes from non-wine Saccharomyces strains. With the help of this hybrid yeast, the researchers hope to discover how wine yeast strains change or evolve over time and which genes are important for winemaking. Since the transformation of grape juice into wine involves yeast-driven fermentation, winemakers can then use the resulting "perfect yeast" in making the most of their raw materials and getting the best flavors from their grapes. One breakthrough in this field so far is the creation of a raspberry ketone aroma compound in a wine yeast strain.

SYNTHETIC SPECIATION

Synthetic speciation pertains to the creation of a synthetic species, whose applications include the prevention of unwanted breeding of modified organisms with unmodified organisms in the wild. Synthetic speciation makes use of the concept of synthetic incompatibility, which serves as a "genetic barrier to sexual reproduction between otherwise compatible populations [by activating] lethal gene expression in hybrid offspring following undesired mating events." Though synthetic speciation cannot stop genetically modified plants, crops, or animals from mating with their unmodified counterparts, it can stop the unwanted production of hybrid offspring. This technology has so far been used in brewer's yeast, where over-activated genes in hybrid yeast offspring essentially made the offspring self-destruct.


Sources
Sources

Quotes
  • "“Cellular agriculture” and “biosensors” are two of these fundamental tools to help with sustainability in the food and agriculture industries."
  • "Cellular agriculture allows for the production of food with higher and tailored nutritional or medicinal value, food with longer shelf life and devoid of harmful ingredients such as allergens for susceptible populations. Enriching soil or feedstock with engineered microorganisms acting as biosensors helps with the detection of pathogens or contaminants, confers resistance to disease agents, and enhances the quality of animal or plant food products. These and similar innovative solutions are moving sustainable agricultural practices and the food industry into a new era where less resources are used for the production of more beneficial food."
Quotes
  • "Synthetic biology is a rapidly growing field, new techniques in genome design and synthesis, and more efficient molecular tools such as CRISPR/Cas9 may harbor opportunities more broadly than the development of new cultivars and breeds. In particular, the ability to use synthetic biology to engineer biosensors, synthetic speciation, microbial metabolic engineering, mammalian multiplexed CRISPR, novel anti microbials, and projects such as Yeast 2.0 all have significant potential to deliver transformative changes to agriculture in the short, medium and longer term."
Quotes
  • "Gene editing is a key enabling technology for synthetic biology. However, synthetic biology goes beyond gene sequencing (reading DNA) and gene editing (editing DNA) to synthesizing (writing) new DNA. Synthetic biology is also often referred to as “engineering biology”."
  • "Today’s cultivation of many crops depends on the application of nitrogen fertilizer to fulfill the plants’ nutritional needs for growth. Based on the expanding field of microbiome studies, researchers are increasingly looking at the role of microbes in the plant and soil that help the plant’s roots fix nitrogen. In many cases, plants are not pairing up with microorganisms to support this process."
  • "By biologically engineering microbes, synthetic biology has the potential to improve the microbes’ ability to make nitrogen available for plants. This offers the prospect of lowering and more optimally applying nitrogen fertilizer."
Quotes
  • "An intelligent combination of biological components, such as enzymes or bacteria, and technological components, that detect physical and chemical changes and transmit them in the form of data: biosensors enable us to trace a food, measure its nutritional content or identify any pesticide contamination. Why? To give us healthier and healthier food and avoid waste."
Quotes
  • "Biosensors and biosensing technologies with their applications, are being widely applied to tackling top challenges in food production and its sustainability. Consequently, a growing demand in biosensing technologies exists in food sustainability"
Quotes
  • "An alternative to transgenic engineering, Crispr is a gene-editing technique that’s applied to selective breeding. Scientists “edit” a plant’s genome to get desired traits."
Quotes
  • "Scientists hope the public will prove less hostile to CRISPR and TALENs, the most prominent of the new gene-editing tools, because of their potential to improve taste and nutritional value."
  • "Both work like tiny genetic scissors, snipping the double helix of a plant’s DNA at specific, pre-coded spots. When the DNA heals itself, it sometimes deletes or scrambles the gene next to the break — effectively turning that gene “off.”"
Quotes
  • "Ginkgo works with yeast microbes, engineering them to make cool-sounding products like cultured rose oil and GMO beer. For the joint venture, Joyn is able to draw on Ginkgo’s knowledge base, using those same techniques but with a different focus (at least for now): nitrogen fixation."
  • "While there are plenty of natural nitrogen-fixing microbes in the world, Miille says nature might not be good enough. “Engineered microbes are going to perform at a way higher level than just natural ones. They're going to be designed and optimized for very specific purposes.”"
Quotes
  • "While the optimization of microbial biofertilizers and biopesticides is advancing rapidly to enable use in various soils, crop varieties and environments, crop breeding programmes have yet to incorporate the selection of beneficial plant–microbe interactions to breed ‘microbe‐optimized plants’. Emerging efforts exploring microbiome engineering could lead to microbial consortia that are better suited to support plants. The combination of all three approaches could be integrated to achieve maximum benefits and significantly improved crop yields to address food security."
Quotes
  • "According to its website, the Synthetic Yeast Genome Project (Sc2.0), or Yeast 2.0, is the “world’s first synthetic eukaryotic genome project that aims to create a novel, rationalized version of the genome of the yeast species Saccharomyces cerevisiae.” The goal of Yeast 2.0 is to create a synthetic version of Saccharomyces that removes all non-essential DNA sequences while maintaining the phenotypic integrity of the yeast."
  • "As it relates directly to wine, Pretorius says he and former colleagues at the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) are currently working on a project building a “synthetic neochromosome” that includes genes from other non-wine Saccharomyces yeast strains, which will be incorporated into Saccharomyces. With this hybrid yeast, the group aims to discover how wine yeast strains evolved over time, and exactly which genes are essential for winemaking. According to Pretorius, this work is 90 percent complete."
Quotes
  • "In a study released last October, the team described how synthetic incompatibility acts as a "genetic barrier to sexual reproduction between otherwise compatible populations [by activating] lethal gene expression in hybrid offspring following undesired mating events"."
  • "In other words, you might not be able to stop genetically modified plants, animals, and micro-organisms from mating with their organic counterparts out there in the world, but you can at least exercise some deadly control over what happens next."