It has been more than 25 years since the first ‘genetically modified organisms’ (GMOs) were sold for consumer use. The techniques used to create the first generation of engineered organisms (such as GMO soy, corn, canola and cotton) involved crudely moving DNA from one organism to another experimentally, using “recombinant DNA” or “transgenic” techniques. Now, a next, more advanced generation of techniques have been developed that also alter and engineer life forms at the genetic level. These new genetic techniques are referred to as synthetic biology (syn bio) or GMO 2.0.
Synthetic biologists employ techniques that allow them to more significantly redesign the genetic makeup of living organisms through constructing, adding, deleting, silencing, or completely rewriting DNA and other genetic elements. They include (but are not limited to) DNA synthesis, genome editing, RNA interference, directed evolution and metabolic engineering.
For now, much of the commercial use of these techniques involves re-engineering microbes such as yeast, E. coli or algae so that those organisms excrete new chemical compounds. Synthetic biology companies, working with large flavour, fragrance and ingredient companies, use these re-engineered microbes to churn out synthetic versions of popular ingredients. Because the process involves fermentation, GMO 2.0 ingredients are sometime misleadingly referred to as ‘natural’ or ‘nature-identical’ when in fact the production method is far from natural.
The use of GMO 2.0 organisms for production of consumer ingredients raises many of the same issues as first generation GMO (around biosafety, ownership and justice) as well as new concerns. For a simple introduction to GMOs 2.0, see the consumer-oriented booklet “Are GMOs 2.0 in your food and cosmetics? A shopper’s guide” or watch this introductory video.