Synthetic biology continues to be a disruptive technology in a number of key areas and represents a significant opportunity for R&D and development of IP, and hence investment. In this article in the M&C SynBio series, we look at how synthetic biology is playing a role in the development of new foods which may become commonplace in the future as pressures grows on providing ethical, sustainable and environmentally friendly food sources. There are concerns that conventional food production will not be able to meet increasing demand for food across the globe, with estimates that production needs to be increased by at least 70% by 2050, alternatives are sorely needed.
In particular, the rise in popularity of a plant-based diet has provided a hub of activity in synthetic biology to produce non-animal versions of traditional animal products to cater towards this new market. Whilst Quorn™ is what some might call “old-school” synthetic biology, new non-animal protein options are also appearing on the horizon, with a growth in innovation in meat-imitation (as well as meat-alternative) products. Much of this innovation lies in the discovery of what factors give food its integral flavours and textures, and how this can be replicated this in a synthetically produced product.
Probably the most famous example of this is the Impossible Burger™, which is genetically engineered to produce soy heme protein, the protein responsible for binding iron atoms and carrying oxygen in the blood, in order to make a plant-based burger that “bleeds”. Impossible Burger’s holds an number of patents claiming various aspects of the burger and its production process, based on the technology of expressing the gene for heme in soybean plants in genetically engineered yeast which are then fermented to produce the heme protein needed for the burger. Interestingly, Impossible Foods Inc has a number of other patent filings related to synthetic foods, such as methods for non-dairy cheese products produced by enzymatically curdling non-dairy milks such as soy milk, and pH switchable reagents that can be used to enhance food products e.g. by removing an undesirable substance or purifying a target substance from a mixture.
Outside of Impossible Foods Inc, there are many other companies, including many start-ups based in the UK, working in this field, and synthetic biology offers more than just a bleeding burger when it comes to meat. When the first lab grown steak was eaten by critics in 2013, it had taken Professor Mark Post and his colleagues two years and over US$300,000 to produce. “Clean meat” has come a long way since then, and many biotech companies are focussing on making this a more realistic option. UK based start-up Higher Steaks are using their knowledge of chemical engineering and stem cell regeneration to create more scalable and cost-efficient pork based meat products using advanced cell culture methods. One company who have taken advantage of another game-changing technology are Novameat who have created the world’s first 3D printed plant-based steak. Scionti, the owners of the Novameat technology, have filed for patent protection in the recently published WO 2020/030628. This application describes “an edible viscoelastic microextrudable composition” which, though replication of the nutritional and textural properties found in meat, can be used to replicate meat products, and in particular steak, by using any number of protein sources including non-animal proteins. In particular, it is described that the naturally striated appearance of muscle tissue can be replicated through 3D printing in order to produce a meat-like texture to the product.
Silicon Valley based Perfect Day are using synthetic biology to engineer plant-based dairy products, including consumer favourites like coconut pecan ice cream. Perfect Day’s production process is neatly described on their website, where bacteria naturally present in conventional dairy milk are used to express key milk proteins and are fermented to convert plant sugars in the key ingredients needed for all dairy products, whey and casein. Whilst similar genetic engineering may have already been used in other synthetic food technologies, a key aspect of Perfect Day’s invention was the surprising discovery that only a small number of proteins present in traditional dairy milk are responsible for its typical taste, smell and appearance, and therefore only these proteins need to be replicated in a synthetic product to deliver a familiar, tasty non-animal dairy product. Interestingly, Perfect Day also have a number of other filings, including a recent published application to methods of isolating filamentous fungal cells, suggesting fermentation technology in this area could move beyond the typically used yeast cells.
On the beverage front, there is also efforts to produce beer without the need for hops. As, whilst hoppy beer is delicious, the water requirements to grow hops is astounding and thus reducing the demand for hops is an issue of environmental importance. A Nature Communications article published in 2018 described how yeast could be engineered using CRISPR-Cas9 techniques to directly produce two key substances responsible for the hoppy flavour of beer, linalool and geraniol, negated the need for hops in the fermentation process. Indeed, in blind taste tests the resulting beer was found to not only score highly on taste, but also be rated as “more hoppy” than beer produced through traditional hops-based methods. The brains behind the technology have now got their own start-up called Berkeley Brewing Science, and are now engineering various brewer’s yeasts expressing proteins linked to other flavours, to make a range of different tasting beers with improved sustainability, some of which can even be bought online for the keen home brewer.
Whilst all of these technologies would not be misplaced in a Back to the Future film, these are becoming a reality and now just require the scaling and market accessibility in order to be available to the masses. There are even organisations such as Gingko Bioworks, who focus on offering platforms to scale these types of synthetic product production, supporting the ambitious transition of initial idea to reality and scaling.
Who knows whether in years to come we will all be eating lab grown beef burgers (with non-animal cheese) and washing it down with synthetically produced non-hops beers, but synthetic biology is clearly providing significant opportunities to both serve changing consumer demands, as well as provide solutions to environmental and sustainability issues in the food and drink industry.