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 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.
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 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 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 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.