Synthetic biology to solve sensitive diet restrictions
The rapidly expanding engineered food market is gaining a lot of buzz, both with investors and future consumers. This excitement for the future of food comes with good reason. The general public views these emerging technologies as exciting because they are poised to contribute positively in addressing several key issues facing global society today: 1) Climate change through a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions associated with energy intensive animal agriculture, 2) Ethical concerns surrounding traditional slaughter practices in meat production, and 3) Water and crop usage for raising livestock and the plants that feed them. Additionally, the public seems intrigued by the science-fictionesque nature of this growing industry. But the truly exciting piece lies not just in the imaginative depictions of science fiction, but in the reality of this technology. As companies begin to dive into the research of how to recreate common food items such as meats, cheeses and even egg products, researchers are beginning to understand that recreation of these familiar foods requires a lot of engineering at the cellular and molecular levels. Because of this, a growing number of entities are realizing that merely mimicking existing products is not the only way to proceed in this industry. Rather, this industry could recreate foods from the ground up to address dietary constraints just not possible in traditional agricultural practices. This fledgling, but quickly expanding, industry is able to steer into places even sci fi writers could not have foreseen. With these innovative new ways to control our food even at the molecular level, this industry is poised to potentially solve new problems not in the market’s original vision for engineered foods.
Many people in developed nations are living with some sort of dietary restriction that severely limits what they are able to safely eat. One such example would be a condition known as eosinophilic esophagitis (EoE), which is a disorder characterized by hyperinflammation to the gastrointestinal tract that is exceptionally sensitive to certain food groups. Patients coping with EoE tend to rely on dietary restrictions that follow the six-food elimination diet (SFED) that typically excludes wheat, milk, egg, nuts, soy, fish and shellfish. As many will note, these categories of food make up quite a sizable portion of western diets which makes it exceedingly difficult to adhere to these restrictions long term. Additionally, the prevalence of these food groups in western culture, and cultures worldwide, will make accidental ingestion highly likely. With the advent of engineered foods, researchers have a unique opportunity to rebuild the foods we crave from the ground up. The use of synthetic biology to modify the starting material to remove or replace allergens while preserving characteristic flavors and textures is similar to how a molecular understanding of celiac disease spurred the use of culinary techniques to produce gluten free breads.
Synthetic biology is an interdisciplinary field that aims to take what we know about genetics and cellular physiology to leverage precise gene editing tools such as CRISPR and TALEN editing packages to control behavior of living cells through their genetics. By treating genetic pathways as tunable and editable circuits, cells can be made into factories for all kinds of goods. Additionally, combining these powerful editing tools in addition to big data driven systems biology, researchers have never had more control and understanding of complex biological systems. Many companies are using synthetic biology to take control of biological systems to become molecular factories or even build up the bulk material of food products. Various groups around the world are leveraging this new field of biology to recreate staple foods by rebuilding dairy from the molecule up. In doing so, these companies are beginning to think about how they can move beyond merely mimicking “natural” counterparts to these products. By taking a “ground up” approach, researchers are beginning to realize they do not need to limit themselves to only following what traditional agriculture has been able to provide. The tools of synthetic biology allow for much more discreet control of these biologic systems where everything from the protein up can be designed for a unique and nutritious product.
Some of the first attempts at producing engineered foods using synthetic biology toolkits were in plant agriculture. These products were designed to address a variety of concerns from protecting crops from invasive pathogens to creating a food product to fill a much needed gap in local diets. These triumphs really demonstrated, as a proof of concept, the capacity of engineered foods to solve problems at all points of the supply chain. These products can address concerns from the production process to the nutritional value provided to our diets. As this technology evolved, the emerging market of engineered meats is finally hitting maturity. Stem cell reprogramming technology allows for scientists to take a small biopsy from animals commonly used as livestock and turn them back into stem cells. This is done through the introduction of stem cell factors that are able to “reset” the epigenetic landscape of the genome make the cells behave like embryonic stem cells. What is attractive about these cells is their inherent ability to divide theoretically indefinitely, without reaching a phase of replicative exhaustion known as senescence. Additionally, these stem cells maintain the ability to transform [differentiate] into any cell type of the body. Using these unique features of stem cells would allow industries to create genetically identical [autogenic] cell components of all sorts of meat products. Stem cells can be used to make skeletal muscle that makes up many of our favorite meat cuts such as steaks, pork chops, and chicken breasts. These cells can be further refined with the addition of other cell types responsible for the flavor of the livestock produced product such as fat [adipose].
By leveraging these approaches of synthetic biology and genetic engineering truly allows for scientists to recreate food from the ground up, and to create it in ways never before imaginable. Similar cuts of meat can be reimagined to have higher protein or nutrient content, altered lipid ratios, lower cholesterol or even take a page from plant agricultural feats, such as golden rice, to introduce nutrients generally missing from local diets into foods people naturally want to eat. It also allows for creations that can circumvent common dietary restrictions due to allergens while finding new ways to preserve that texture and flavor that people love. The unprecedented leverage the cell agriculture space has on designing food down to the molecular level offers a bright and exciting future for food, both from a scientific and consumer perspective.
Written by Chris Anderson, Associate