A brief insight to this transformative field of science
Synthetic Biology - Shaping the Future of Global Food Systems
A major challenge facing societies worldwide is feeding the growing human population while preserving our environment. Due to the lack and contamination of agro-resources (soil, water), current efforts revolve around finding novel solutions to the problem without adversely impacting the environment (incl. wildlife, natural habitats and resources therein). Nature co-design addresses areas like food, agriculture, health, fashion, environment – all of which have an intimate impact on human lives.
Synthetic biology: a nature co-design opportunity?
However, the technologies of synthetic biology, particularly gene-editing, challenge the notion that only naturally-evolved organisms and ecosystems are capable of influencing climate. An article in the MIT Technology Review in 2015, entitled “How Synthetic Organisms Could Terraform the Earth”, demonstrates the growing interest in novel and artificial forms of life. According to it, one possible method to combat climate change might be releasing synthetic organisms that sequester carbon. Conservationists prioritize organisms and ecosystems in a different way than this kind of biology. So, it is fair to ask, would the release of genetically engineered organisms pose a risk to biodiversity?
According to GenScript synthetic biology is impacting the food and agriculture industry through:
- Engineering biosynthetic pathways and enzymes to improve the efficiency of existing processes of food production, increase the quality and nutritional value of produced food, and generate novel food products;
- Engineering host organisms as “cell factories” in form of strain improvement of organisms that are innately capable of generating a specific food type/ingredient or useful agricultural metabolite, and strain development through importing useful genes to host organisms that can render them capable of producing a desired food type/ingredient or agricultural metabolite;
- Engineering traditional producers of food, i.e. agricultural plants and farm animals, to improve disease resistance, environmental tolerance, and food quality and yield.
Therefore, synthetic biology encompasses the redesigning of organisms for useful purposes by engineering them to have new abilities. Researchers use synthetic biology to harness nature’s power to solve agricultural problems. With synthetic biology, we can increase plant carbon efficiency, optimise nitrogen and phosphorus utilisation, improve the nutritional value of crops, and use photoautotrophic organisms as large-scale production platforms. Scientists around the world are engineering plants to improve nutrition quality, removing undesirable metabolites and increasing beneficial ones. Plants can also help in the massive production of valuable biopharmaceutical and immuno-therapeutic products thanks to their scalability.
Reducing dependence on artificial fertilizers
Working with nature has the potential to create a new economic model that is intrinsically more sustainable and allows for faster, leaner innovation. Synthetic biology provides a better understanding of the biological world, and helps to reconstruct or redesign biological systems or parts for a particular purpose.
Currently, agricultural production depends on the large-scale use of chemical fertilizers. Artificial fertilizers, based on the Haber-Bosch synthesis, may have assisted in increasing food production to meet the needs of a doubling of global population since 1970. But, the ammonia produced via the Haber-Bosch process is actually the “most energy-intensive commodity chemical” and plays a major role in agriculture’s contribution to climate change. N2O emissions result from the inefficient use of nitrogen fertilizer, as well as N2O is 250 to 300 times more potent than CO2 in global warming.
As stated in a deep tech report “Nature Co-Design: A Revolution in the Making” (BCG, Hello Tomorrow, 2021) the Haber-Bosch process has many downsides. It:
- requires massive amounts of energy to convert atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia;
- is energy-intensive, consuming 3% to 5% of the world’s natural gas supply and around 1% to 2% of the world’s energy supply, and is also responsible for more than 1% of all CO2 emissions;
- and disrupts ecosystems since the efficiency of nitrogen use by plants is below 50%, and the rest of the ammonia is washed off the crops, contaminating water sources.
The nitrogen fertilizer used on these crops accounts for 50 percent of the total carbon dioxide emissions. Farmers should therefore improve nitrogen fertilizer efficiency. According to AgriTech Tomorrow (2020), there are also ways to improve the carbon efficiency of plants, while increasing production. Diversified cropping systems, for example, can reduce carbon footprints by up to 300 percent.
Design of nature based systems for better nitrogen supply
The element nitrogen (N) is essential to all living organisms, while it is the most limiting in ecosystems and crop production. In spite of the use of synthetic fertilisers, nitrogen requirements for food production increase annually, while overuse of agrochemicals compromises soil health and agricultural sustainability. Nature co-design using gene-editing techniques is a good example of innovative biotechnological approaches to help resolve this issue. For example, Pivot Bio and Joyn Bio identified the bacterial strains capable of fixing nitrogen directly on plant roots. As more than 60% of the fixed N on Earth results from biological nitrogen fixation (BNF), mycorrhizal fungi, such as arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF), have a significant positive effect on BNF via direct and/or indirect interactions with N-fixing bacteria. Due to an urgent need to reduce the systematic use of inorganic fertilisers and promote sustainable farming practices, the optimisation of BNF in agriculture has become more important to help feed the needs of a growing world population.
To incorporate nature co-design principle and reduce this dependance, a road map for successful and large-scale adoption of N-fixing biofertilisers was proposed by a scientific group in 2020. To name a few, these included:
- Broadening the host spectrum of symbiotic bacteria by reducing the symbiotic specificity through good comprehension of the genetic and molecular mechanisms that regulate symbiotic specificity;
- Rigorous testing of inoculums under a wide range of environmental conditions and soil types before their commercialisation;
- Identifying soils suitable for inoculation with N-fixing organisms, with particular attention to low pH and high levels of N in soil;
- Strengthening farmers’ capacities through training and the establishment of networks for sharing reference protocols and information about BNF.
For more info on Soil Innovation Cluster’s innovative fertilising solutions incorporating AMF, see project works under Granular Organic Fertilisers.
A new era of production
Evidently, multiple technologies have contributed to the growth and acceleration of synthetic biology. While it relies on fundamental technologies such as reading and writing DNA and genome editing tools like CRISPR, a stack of emerging technologies enables companies to specialise and enter the market faster. The technologies include computational tools, organism engineering platforms, cell-free systems (which require no organism to produce end products), 3D bioprinting, and precision fermentation, among others. As nature co-design and the technologies behind it reach the market, the decades-old value chains of industries such as agriculture and food, chemicals and materials, energy and utilities, and consumer goods will be disrupted. Actually, we already experience changes in the things we value and the way we value them – be it the comfort of home delivery, the booming of e-commerce, application of blockchain technology for better traceability in agriculture, or other data-driven innovations for smart farming and interconnecting food chains.
Hence, disruption in agriculture is not limited to ammonia replacement. As reported already in 2016 in Agrifutures Australia in Transformative Technology Fact Sheet of Synthetic Biology, the field provides new insights into biological structures that will inform a range of applications to agricultural science, including new control measures for pests and diseases, new crops, green fuels, and environmental and food processing monitors. Examples range from reducing livestock’s carbon footprint by increasing protein content in plants (Plant Sensory Systems) to improving a plant’s ability to sequester carbon in the soil (Soil Carbon), or creating population-controlled insects to avoid crop destruction (Oxitech). Additionally, farm management can benefit from biosensor development and integration with agri-intelligence systems to reduce agrochemical consumption, as well as introduce novel microbial recycling technologies, biofuels, and possible post-harvest applications to reduce crop and/or food spoilage.
Nature co-design takes advantage of the ongoing (digital) transformation of our economy to add a whole new level of flexibility. For example, raw materials are replaced with feedstock or “waste streams”, with focus on up-cycling and recycling. Less animal-based inputs will be used, as well as less (hazardous) chemical processing. This opens up the opportunity to produce new products, materials and chemicals, creating less side streams, and operating at lower environmental impact. For enhanced safety and higher quality, biosensors will improve food safety and natural resource management with more precise and timely detection of contaminants, than current monitoring methods.
Many of the new foods are made using synthetic biology, using principles of genetic engineering to create life forms from scratch. With the alternative protein market growing, RethinkX suggests that novel food production methods that rely on fermentation and plant-based ingredients could capture market share much more quickly than mainstream analysts anticipate. New feedstocks emerging from non-conventional sources, like microorganisms, offer new ways of producing existing foods. Currently, a Swiss company (Evolva) is engineering yeast to produce the key flavour and colour compounds of saffron, one of the world’s most expensive spices.
Additionally, synthetic biology will create new skills and careers throughout the agricultural supply chain, from research and development where new systems are designed, to manufacturing where new materials are created and used to produce novel products and ingredients.
New life science technologies like CRISPR prove how new technologies can work efficiently and see rapid adoption, but still raise fundamental scientific and ethical questions. Conceptualising a biological function and translating it into a practical application is challenging because access to the necessary tools and materials is often limited.
Many challenges that arise are related to technical aspects of research and development. Initially, resource efficiency and innovation therein creates more value, but this also requires the industry to redesign its operational systems (e.g. production processes), and adopt new technologies (incl. machinery), as well as onboard relevant competence. It is in this context that we should realise the increasing importance of scientific knowledge. Synthetic biology and nanotechnology have evolved greatly during recent decade, but nature co-design is still in its early stages. Although much discovery is yet to be made, a great deal of foundational knowledge resulting from ongoing research is already facilitating advances in agriculture, medicine, and biology.
There are a number of issues preventing the adoption of synthetic biology, including unpredictability, scalability, a lack of tools, and ethical issues surrounding the manipulation of biological matter (i.e. organisms). Further research is required to understand how synthetic organisms survive in natural environments. To address social and ethical challenges, transparency in research, dissemination and the engagement of the consumers will shape the public’s attitude to biotechnology and its applications to agriculture and food production.