In the last decades, synthetic biology has provided scientists with a wide range of experimental tools to engineer organisms for many different purposes. That’s what we have been doing in fields like drug production, energy sourcing, waste treatment… It was a matter of time for this technology to be used in the food industry!
The products produced by these methods are called synthetic food and, although most of them are still in a start-up phase, a lot of funding is being invested in the field. Its appeal lies not only in innovation but in the benefits it can potentially bring. For example, making a products’ manufacture cheaper, less harmful to the environment, or making food healthier for people.
In case you are curious, here you have some examples of synthetic food, and how they can benefit our health and economy in a delicious eco-friendly way.
Beer has a prominent place in human history, with the first records of this golden drink dating from 4000 B. C! One of the reasons for the success of this golden drink could be how simple it is: brewing beer requires only four ingredients: water, grain, hops and last but not least, the fermenting power of yeast. There are many variations of this recipe, as craft beers have become a trend worldwide, but Berkeley’s scientists have developed an outstanding way of producing it. They have engineered yeast to create a new strain that can provide beer with its characteristic hop flavour… without adding any hop!
This innovation not only cheapens beer production but also minimizes the environmental cost of growing and transporting hop. The latest quality tests performed on this hop-less beer have been very successful, as tasters of the beer have stated it to be “even more hoppy” than a regular hop beer. The research is still going on, but we can’t wait to taste its results too!
Keeping yeast as the main character of our story, Clara Foods company has managed to use them for a different purpose: obtaining animal proteins in a fully vegan way. Their most famous work is the animal-free egg white, which can be used like the one obtained from hens. All thanks to the engineering manipulation of yeast! These researchers found a way to use yeasts’ fermentation to turn sugars into animal proteins such as the one that forms egg white.
This innovation not only makes egg white suitable for vegans but also reduces the environmental impact of this food and makes it cheaper, as it saves the need for keeping and feeding an animal stock. Moreover, as it is the same protein as the animal one, it keeps the nutritional value and the taste of its counterpart!
Their aim is to keep researching how to separate the production of proteins from animals, so we can expect their new take anytime soon!
Towards healthy sugar
Now turning into a sweeter matter, we have some news for sugar lovers. The harmful effect of an excess of this compound in human’s health has been a concern for many years now, as it can produce conditions such as obesity or diabetes. But now, Amai Proteins company may have developed a solution: sweet proteins! By modifying existing proteins with a computational design method, they have been able to manufacture proteins that are optimized for industrial production but retain specific qualities, such as their sweetness.
Most of the innovation here is made inside a computer: researchers create new protein sequences with bioinformatical tools, specify their properties virtually and then produce them on yeast cultures. Using microbes as factories make the manufacturing process cheaper and more eco-friendly, and the resulting artificial sugars maintain their sweet flavour without the harmful effects!
Food out of air
If we are talking about producing food while minimizing the necessary resources, this company takes it to the next level: obtaining food from electricity and air! Solar Foods is developing a compound which is similar to wheat flour using only carbon dioxide, air, electricity and microbes. They call it Solein, and it can be used for both the manufacture of other foods and as a dish condiment. Its high protein content and wheat-like aspect makes it very versatile, even opening the possibility of its use to feed animal stock.
The process involves a bacterium and a fermentation process. They have engineered microbes to turn air’s CO2 and hydrogen generated via electricity into the product. This technology could be an alternative to the use of agriculture and livestock in protein manufacture, as it will make the process cheaper. Moreover, the energy used comes from renewable resources, so it also lessens the environmental impact.
Although we have only given you a few examples here, synthetic food covers a wide range of compounds and procedures. Whether we find them appetizing or not, these new products are sure to have an impact on the environment and the economy. Synthetic biology is changing the way we eat, and what we eat, but it’s in innovation and variety where our future awaits. Bon Appetit!