From domestication and selective breeding to synthetic insulin and CRISPR, humanity has long sought understand, master and exploit the genetic coding of the natural world. In The Genesis Machine: Our Quest to Rewrite Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology authors Amy Webb, professor of strategic foresight at New York University’s Stern School of Business, and Andrew Hessel, co-founder and chairman of the Center of Excellence for Engineering Biology and the Genome Project, delve into the history of the field of synthetic biology, examine today's state of the art and imagine what a future might look like where life itself can be manufactured molecularly.
Excerpted from THE GENESIS MACHINE: Our Quest to Rewrite Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology by Amy Webb and Andrew Hessel. Copyright © 2022. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
It’s plausible that by the year 2040, many societies will think it’s immoral to eat traditionally produced meat and dairy products. Some luminaries have long believed this was inevitable. In his essay “Fifty Years Hence,” published in 1931, Winston Churchill argued, “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”
That theory was tested in 2013, when the first lab-grown hamburger made its debut. It was grown from bovine stem cells in the lab of Dutch stem cell researcher Mark Post at Maastricht University, thanks to funding from Google cofounder Sergey Brin. It was fortuitous that a billionaire funded the project, because the price to produce a single patty was $375,000. But by 2015, the cost to produce a lab-grown hamburger had plummeted to $11.43. Late in 2020, Singapore approved a local competitor to the slaughterhouse: a bioreactor, a high-tech vat for growing organisms, run by US-based Eat Just, which produces cultured chicken nuggets. In Eat Just’s bioreactors, cells taken from live chickens are mixed with a plant-based serum and grown into an edible product. Chicken nuggets produced this way are already being sold in Singapore, a highly regulated country that’s also one of the world’s most important innovation hotspots. And the rising popularity of the product could accelerate its market entry in other countries.
An Israel-based company, Supermeat, has developed what it calls a “crispy cultured chicken,” while Finless Foods, based in California, is developing cultured bluefin tuna meat, from the sought-after species now threatened by long-standing overfishing. Other companies, including Mosa Meat (in the Netherlands), Upside Foods (in California, formerly known as Memphis Meats), and Aleph Farms (in Israel), are developing textured meats, such as steaks, that are cultivated in factory-scale labs. Unlike the existing plant-based protein meat alternatives developed by Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, cell-based meat cultivation results in muscle tissue that is, molecularly, beef or pork.
Two other California companies are also offering innovative products: Clara Foods serves creamy, lab-grown eggs, fish that never swam in water, and cow’s milk brewed from yeast. Perfect Day makes lab-grown “dairy” products—yogurt, cheese, and ice cream. And a nonprofit grassroots project, Real Vegan Cheese, which began as part of the iGEM competition in 2014, is also based in California. This is an open-source, DIY cheese derived from caseins (the proteins in milk) rather than harvested from animals. Casein genes are added to yeast and other microflora to produce proteins, which are purified and transformed using plant-based fats and sugars. Investors in cultured meat and dairy products include the likes of Bill Gates and Richard Branson, as well as Cargill and Tyson, two of the world’s largest conventional meat producers.
Lab-grown meat remains expensive today, but the costs are expected to continue to drop as the technology matures. Until they do, some companies are creating hybrid animal-plant proteins. Startups in the United Kingdom are developing blended pork products, including bacon created from 70 percent cultured pork cells mixed with plant proteins. Even Kentucky Fried Chicken is exploring the feasibility of selling hybrid chicken nuggets, which would consist of 20 percent cultured chicken cells and 80 percent plants.
Shifting away from traditional farming would deliver an enormous positive environmental impact. Scientists at the University of Oxford and the University of Amsterdam estimated that cultured meat would require between 35 and 60 percent less energy, occupy 98 percent less land, and produce 80 to 95 percent fewer greenhouse gases than conventional animals farmed for consumption. A synthetic-biology-centered agriculture also promises to shrink the distance between essential operators in the supply chain. In the future, large bioreactors will be situated just outside major cities, where they will produce the cultured meat required by institutions such as schools, government buildings and hospitals, and perhaps even local restaurants and grocery stores. Rather than shipping tuna from the ocean to the Midwest, which requires a complicated, energy-intensive cold chain, fish could instead be cultured in any landlocked state. Imagine the world’s most delicate, delicious bluefin tuna sushi sourced not from the waters near Japan, but from a bioreactor in Hastings, Nebraska. Synthetic biology will also improve the safety of the global food supply. Every year, roughly 600 million people become ill from contaminated food, according to World Health Organization estimates, and 400,000 die. Romaine lettuce contaminated with E. coli infected 167 people across 27 states in January 2020, resulting in 85 hospitalizations. In 2018, an intestinal parasite known as Cyclospora, which causes what is best described as explosive diarrhea, resulted in McDonald’s, Trader Joe’s, Kroger, and Walgreens removing foods from their shelves. Vertical farming can minimize these problems. But synthetic biology can help in a different way, too: Often, tracing the source of tainted food is difficult, and the detective work can take weeks. But a researcher at Harvard University has pioneered the use of genetic barcodes that can be affixed to food products before they enter the supply chain, making them traceable when problems arise.
That researcher’s team engineered strains of bacteria and yeast with unique biological barcodes embedded in spores. Such spores are inert, durable, and harmless to humans, and they can be sprayed onto a wide variety of surfaces, including meat and produce. The spores are still detectable months later even after being subjected to wind, rain, boiling, deep frying, and microwaving. (Many farmers, including organic farmers, already spray their crops with Bacillus thuringiensis spores to kill pests, which means there’s a good chance you’ve already ingested some.) These barcodes could not only aid in contact tracing, but be used to reduce food fraud and mislabeling. In the mid-2010s, there was a rash of fake extra virgin olive oil on the market. The Functional Materials Laboratory at ETH Zurich, a public research university in Switzerland, developed a solution similar to the one devised at Harvard: DNA barcodes that revealed the producer and other key data about the oil.