Food is indispensable for human survival and its balance is essential for people’s health and wellbeing. The global population grows from 7 billion in 2010 to a projected 9.8 billion in 2050, and incomes grow across the developing world, overall food demand is on course to increase by more than 50 percent, and demand for animal-based foods by nearly 70 percent. Yet today, hundreds of millions of people remain hungry, agriculture already uses almost half of the world’s vegetated land, and agriculture and related land-use change generate one-quarter of annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, according to ‘World Resources Report: Creating a Sustainable Food Future’.
Feeding the growing human population while preserving the environment is a major problem facing societies across the globe. With limited and contaminated arable land and water resources, current efforts are focused on finding novel solutions for solving these challenges without placing further burden on the environment. On the other hand, increased awareness about the role of nutritious food in human health and the concept of “food as medicine” has increased the demand for “functional food”.
With this surging population, the need for enhancing the productivity of everything, for catering to the requirements of the people, has increased as well. At the present time, however, there is a pressing need for increasing the agricultural productivity, which is why a number of technological advancements have occurred in the agricultural sector. One of such developments is the emergence of agricultural biotechnology, which involves the utilization of science for modifying animals and plants. This is done to breed out undesirable characteristics, such as low productivity and susceptibility to diseases. Furthermore, any beneficial traits can be bred in by making use of a gene which contains the specific characteristic.
Agricultural biotechnology helps in enhancing agricultural productivity and animal feeds, for increasing their nutrient intake and reducing environmental waste. Attributed to such positive aspects, the agricultural biotechnology market is expected to advance at a substantial rate in the coming years. The different technologies utilized in agricultural biotechnology are biochips, genome editing tools, synthetic biology, deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) sequencing, and ribonucleic acid interference (RNAi). Out of these, genomic editing tools are used the most, primarily in agricultural research.
With the development of society and technology, people’s concept of food consumption has changed dramatically and the demand for food has switched from basic “guarantee supply” to “nutrition and health” In addition, the increasing environmental pollution and world population, novel processes are required to meet the higher demand while maintaining safety, nutritional value and sustainability
Biotechnologies, including synthetic biology, are going to be foundational to the 21st century economy. Synthetic biology is already a multi-billion-dollar industry with broad range of applications in health and medical sector, energy, chemical, environmental, food and agriculture. By the end of the decade, syn-bio products are predicted to be more than a third of global output of manufacturing industries with $30 trillion value. It is also predicted to transform defense with on-demand bio-production of novel drugs, new materials, food, fuels, sensors, and coatings whatever suits the military’s needs.
Synthetic biology can be defined as engineering approach to biology. And it aims to re-design of natural biological systems for useful purposes as well as design and construction of new biological parts, devices, and systems.
How it does it? Any organism’s sensing, metabolic, and decision-making capabilities depend on unique sequence of DNA bases within their genome. These DNA base pair sequences determine how a cell grows and what goes on inside it or what it produces. By changing an organism’s genome sequence, we can alter these cellular functions, and thereby engineer them.
Let’s now consider some of the technologies and tools of synthetic biology which allow us to engineer biological systems. The first technology is to read DNA or DNA Sequencing, that determines the order of the DNA base pairs or biological instructions that are contained in a strand of DNA.
A difference from the expected sequence of a gene is called a variant or mutation. Comparing healthy and mutated DNA sequences scientists can diagnose different diseases including cancers and deliver more individualized medical care. The rapid speed of modern DNA sequencing technology has enabled sequencing of complete genomes of numerous types and species of life, including microbes, animals, plants, and the human genome.
The second is gene editing technology, and CRISPR has become one of the most popular gene editing tools as it is fast, cheap, and easy to use. It can locate, cut, and replace DNA sequences at specific locations modifying the function of that gene. CRISPR uses modified RNA sequence to recognize DNA sequence in genome and bind to it. The RNA also binds to the Cas9 enzyme that cuts the DNA at the targeted location. CRISPR enables Gene therapy that add, delete, or correct genetic material to treat a disease.
Next technology is DNA synthesis that is the natural or artificial creation of DNA molecules. We have already seen natural creation, during cell division DNA helix splits itself and each strand of DNA serve as a pattern for duplicating the sequence of bases. This is natural DNA synthesis process is called DNA replication as it self-replicates or make copies of itself.
Traditionally Artificial DNA synthesis techniques were chemical and relied on toxic chemicals and generated hazardous waste. Further it could synthesize short DNA or RNA molecules called oligonucleotides about 200 bases long. Lengthy sequences resulted in more errors and low yield of correct sequences. To assemble even a small gene, scientists used to synthesize it in short segments and then stitch them together. This was also prone to failure and often required multiple attempts. Therefore, traditional DNA synthesis particularly in long strands, was slower and expensive.
New DNA synthesis technique is called Enzymatic DNA synthesis (EDS). This technique employs DNA-synthesizing enzyme found in cells of the immune system. This enzyme can naturally add nucleotides to an existing DNA molecule in water, where DNA is most stable. The improved precision of this technique allow synthesis of DNA strands several thousand bases long or size of a medium-sized gene.
This technology has enabled development of DNA printers. Earlier scientists would search out sections of DNA code in nature, cut the DNA out of existing organisms, and then insert it into a new host organism in a ‘cut-and paste’ process. DNA printers can build artificial DNA from scratch with any DNA code you want. You don’t need to find DNA in nature anymore, you just buy it in from the internet. There are also several commercial companies that provide DNA synthesis services.
Most synthetic biology companies are coming up with artificial DNA codes that can be inserted into microbes, plants or animals forcing them to make industrially useful compounds. The self-replicating property of DNA allow this to be scaled up, to millions of ‘programmed cell factories’ filling a big industrial vat.
In effect Synthetic biology has turned the bioscience into the future manufacturing paradigm where Companies can engineer and manufacture an infinite quantity of things, cell by cell, from scratch. These bioengineered microorganisms, plants and animals can produce pharmaceuticals, repair defective genes, develop new generations of vaccines, destroy cancer cells, detect toxic chemicals, break down pollutants, and generate hydrogen for the post petroleum economy.
Synthetic Biology in Global food supply chain
Through synthetic biology, researchers can design and build new biomolecular components, pathways and networks, and use these constructs to reprogram organisms to obtain the so-called engineered cell factories. At present, food industry is being transformed by the developments of synthetic biology . The effective combination of food science and synthetic biology is not only an important technology to solve the existing problems of food safety and nutrition, but also an important method to overcome the unsustainability problems associated to traditional food technology.
First, synthetic biology can improve the traditional food production and manufacturing. Second, synthetic biology can improve food nutrition or add new functionalities. Third, synthetic biology can transform the traditional fermentation food production style by the use of engineered microbial communities.
Synthetic biologists are now at the forefront of collective efforts to address these pressing and emerging needs. With the help of sophisticated engineering strategies and tapping into the vast resources in cellular machinery, synthetic biologists have developed novel solutions that either have already found their way into relevant markets or are getting close to moving form laboratory research to commercialization. “Cellular agriculture” and “biosensors” are two of these fundamental tools to help with sustainability in the food and agriculture industries.
Synthetic biology allows the improvement of food production by using programmed monoclonal cell factories, engineered microbial consortia or cell free biosynthesis platforms. By applying synthetic biology technology in future food may be possible to get rid of the drawbacks of the traditional agriculture and husbandry while improving resource conversion efficiency. Overall, synthetic biology driven food industry has the potential to address the challenges of sustainable food supply in the future.
Cellular agriculture allows for the production of food with higher and tailored nutritional or medicinal value, food with longer shelf life and devoid of harmful ingredients such as allergens for susceptible populations. Enriching soil or feedstock with engineered microorganisms acting as biosensors helps with the detection of pathogens or contaminants, confers resistance to disease agents, and enhances the quality of animal or plant food products. These and similar innovative solutions are moving sustainable agricultural practices and the food industry into a new era where less resources are used for the production of more beneficial food.
Synthetic Biology Solutions
GenPlus High-Throughput Gene Synthesis: Custom orders of any size synthesized with our GenBuilder™ high efficiency assembly technology, automated platform, and NGS multiplex sequencing QC
High-Throughput DNA Library Assembly: A powerful source of either naturally-occurring or de novo sequences seamlessly assembled for the discovery of new proteins and development of novel pathways and networks
CRISPR/Cas9 Genome Editing: A one-stop solution for harnessing the power of CRISPR genome editing through partnership with the CRISPR pioneer, Feng Zhang at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard
Using CRISPR to boost yields
Two broad items on the menu for a sustainable food future involve boosting yields on existing cropland and producing more milk and meat on existing grazing land. One way to boost crop yields sustainably (without over-application of fertilisers or over-extraction of irrigation water) is to unlock traits in crop genes that increase yields. CRISPR technology, which enables more precise turning on and off of genes, has the potential to be revolutionary in this regard.
Improving the food production and manufacturing
With the use of synthetic biology, the traditional agriculture and husbandry dependent food production systems will be changed and reformed, which will improve land use efficiency, save water resources and avoid the use of pesticides and fertilizers. In addition, the synthetic biology based food manufacturing system is less affected by uncontrollable environmental factors and is easier to carry out according to high quality standards. By constructing food-based cell factory, foods such as the meat analogs, animal-free bioengineered milk and sugar substitutes can be produced from fully renewable resources (Stephens et al., 2018). In addition, current, well-established manufacturing process of fermented food may also be transformed by synthetic biology, for example, the beer industry can move away from the dependence on the farmed hops by using the engineered hoppy yeast
Globally, per gram of edible protein, beef and lamb use around 20 times the land and generate around 20 times the greenhouse gas emissions of plant-based proteins. Affordable plant-based products that mimic the experience of eating beef could reduce growth in global beef consumption, while still satisfying meat-lovers.
Globally, 56% of plant consumers are trying to eat more plant-based foods and beverages, pushing alternative proteins into an increasingly mainstream phenomenon. Demand for plant-based protein products is rapidly expanding beyond just burger analogues to new and novel products, including alternative seafoods like shellfish and shrimp, plant-based cheeses, ready-to-eat protein snacks and more. Alt meat products also continue to evolve, with new technologies like 3D printing and protein fermentation playing a role in driving innovation. New plant-based meats on the horizon include whole-muscle products like steak and chicken breast, lunch meat, bacon and more.
Fortunately, companies such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are already making headlines by creating plant-based “beef” that looks, sizzles, tastes and even bleeds like the real thing. Starfield Food and Science Technology, a Chinese food tech that has created its own meat-free alternative. Considered the only “2.0” alternative meat venture in China that operates its own R&D and manufacturing facility in China, Starfield has now partnered with 6 major restaurant chains to offer plant-based dishes across the country. Starfield’s ground meat substitute is primarily made from seaweed protein, and was developed by food scientists at Beijing Technology & Business University, Shenzhen University and Jiangnan University.
The dairy alternative category, an early leader in the plant-based nutrition space, is growing to encompass other formats such as yogurt, ice cream, butter, spreads and creamers. To stand out in the dairy aisle, products must deliver more protein than traditional dairy and feature a nutritional label fortified with vitamins and minerals or functional ingredients like probiotics.
The emergence of synthetic biology allows meat analogs to mimic real meat in appearance and characteristics such as color, taste and flavor, thus meeting the increasing demand of consumers for both food quantity and quality. The meat color is generated by hemoglobin or myoglobin Shleikin and Medvedev. Hence, hemoglobin is often added into the meat substitutes. Cell factories able to synthesize heme or hemoglobin have been designed (Zhao et al., 2018), which provide an alternative production method to extraction from plant tissue or animal blood. Hemoglobin is composed of four globin subunits (α2β2) with a prosthetic heme group included in each subunit. There are two pathways named C4 and C5 pathways for the biosynthesis of heme. Recently, an engineered Escherichia coli cell factory that can achieve the secretory production of free heme from glucose was constructed by using the programmed C5 pathway and the downstream heme biosynthesis pathway
Animal-free bioengineered milk
Milk is an important part of the daily diet and contains a variety of bioactive proteins. It can also be used as a raw material for the manufacture of cheese, ice cream, and many other dairy products.
The milk proteins, casein and whey proteins, are the main components of milk . Casein proteins such as α(s1)-casein, β-casein, and κ-casein and whey proteins such as α-lactalbumin, β-lactoglobulin , and lactoferrin have been successfully expressed in engineered E. coli or yeast cell factories using a simple and defined culture media. Then, the purified casein and whey proteins can be mixed with fats, water and other essential components to make synthetic milk.
There are many advantages of the milk substitutes produced with the aid of synthetic biology compared with the traditional process. First, the milk producing cell factory can grow in a bioreactor, which could avoid the problems caused by the traditional husbandry such as antibiotics and hormones contamination or land occupancy. The culture period of the engineered cell is much shorter than that of the dairy cow.
Furthermore, the components of the artificial bioengineered milk can be configured as needed, and that is more convenient than previous attempts to build transgenic cows (Van Berkel et al., 2002; Brophy et al., 2003). In addition, it can be made with a composition closer to the human breast milk for infants in order to promote a healthy development by changing the ratio of the proteins lactoferrin, β-casein and κ-casein. Other non-essential ingredients such as lactose and major milk allergen β-lactoglobulin can be easily excluded. One can imagine that If these substitutes take a large portion of the market share, the production and processing of dairy will be reformed completely. The milk can be brew by yeast, and its production is no longer dependent on the dairy farming that possess low energy conversion and occupy much land resource.
Sushmita Venkatraman, Director of Marking and Swami Srinivas, Director of Organism Engineering at Ginkgo Bioworks, Inc. joined Elysabeth Alfano at the Future Food-Tech for a discussion on the growth of the Plant-based Innovation Sector.
“Yeah, so I think a lot of the processes that we are seeing right now emit a lot of greenhouse gasses and they involve harming animals in the process. They involve harming plants [and the planet] in the process, and so what fermentation can do, precision fermentation, as well as other techniques related to biology, is to really remove those harmful components associated with just breaking it down with the processes that are used today. So, when I say reproducible, I mean experiments can also be reproducible and that’s how you can get to that level of the scale that we are really imagining.”
Synthetic Biology in Agriculture and Food Market
The global synthetic biology in agriculture and food market is projected to grow from $3.20 billion in 2020 to $14.12 billion by 2025, at a CAGR 34.56% from 2020 to 2025.
The growth in synthetic biology in agriculture and food market is expected to be driven by the increasing need for global food security, increasing consumer awareness about high nutritional food, and rising capital investments for synthetic biology research.
Synthetic biology has garnered the attention of industries, such as agriculture and food industry. Synthetic biology has applications in crop yield management, improve diseases and pest resistance, and improve soil health, among others. Similarly, food industry application includes food process optimization, enhancement in food nutritional value, and improving food safety.
The utilization of several technologies in synthetic biology, such as gene synthesis, genome engineering, and bioinformatics technology, is expected to augment the growth of synthetic biology in the technology sector. Moreover, depleting agricultural land and increasing demand for fresh agricultural produce all around the year are expected to propagate the growth of synthetic biology in agriculture and food market.
Regional Market Dynamics
The global synthetic biology in agriculture and food market holds a prominent share in various countries of North America and Europe. North America is at the forefront of the global synthetic biology in agriculture and food market, with a high market penetration rate in the U.S., and Canada, which are expected to display robust market growth in the coming five years.
During the forecast period 2020-2025, the Asia-Pacific and Japan region is expected to flourish as one of the most lucrative markets for synthetic biology in agriculture and food. Asia-Pacific and Japan is expected to exhibit significant growth opportunities for synthetic biology due to increased optimism in the economic conditions of these countries.
The countries in this region present immense scope for market development, owing to the increasing urban population size, growing market penetration of advanced technologies, and favorable government investments on the adaptation of innovative farming technologies.
The competitive landscape of synthetic biology in agriculture and food market consists of different strategies undertaken by major players across the industry to gain market presence. The competitive landscape for synthetic biology in agriculture and food market demonstrates an inclination toward companies adopting strategies, such as product launches and developments, and partnerships, collaborations, and joint ventures.
The major established players in the market focus on partnerships, collaborations, and joint ventures to introduce new technologies or develop further on the existing product portfolio. BASF SE, Bayer, Precigen, Inc., Amyris, Gingko Bioworks, Pivot Bio, Mosa Meat, and Twist Bioscience are some of the prominent players in the synthetic biology in agriculture and food market. The market is highly fragmented with the presence of a large number of small – to medium-sized companies that compete with each other and the large enterprises.
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