Back in the 1600s, the spice trade played an active role in determining colonial conquests, with wars fought over nutmeg and cloves. But if contemporary biologists were able to time-travel, and–bear with me–hand colonial traders some modern yeast technology, the global organization of nation-states might have turned out completely differently. Today, companies are sourcing spices and flavors that can be generated by genetically modified organisms in homegrown labs.
From the New York Times:
“It’s just like brewing beer, but rather than spit out alcohol, the yeast spits out these products,” said Jay D. Keasling, a co-founder of Amyris, a company based here that is a pioneer in the field. However, while yeast makes alcohol naturally, it would not produce the spices without the extensive genetic rejiggering, which is called synthetic biology…
Supporters say the technique could benefit food and cosmetic companies, and ultimately consumers, by reducing wild swings in price, availability and quality that come from dependence on agriculture. It may even relieve pressure on some overharvested wild plants like sandalwood, a tree that provides a fragrance.
One Swiss company, Evolva, is rolling out a product called “vanillin,” an organic compound made from the synthetic yeast. Others use the technique to drum up substitutes for orange and grapefruit flavoring.
But it’s not just taste the yeast biology can replicate: Amyris claims that the technology could substitute ingredients for artemisinin, a malaria drug that relies on sweet wormwood sourced from China, Vietnam, and several African countries. In 2004, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gifted OneWorld Health, the University of California, Berkeley, and Amyris a $42.6 million grant to further develop the synthetic version.
Synthetic biology is not without its controversy, however, and some experts point to the real possibility that the technology could bankrupt certain groups of tropical farmers. There are still plenty of good questions to be asked of the synthetic spice developers–like how modified yeast might affect unmodified strains if cut loose into the wild–and of the regulatory agencies, which are still catching up to the times. Engineering nature also tends to be a bit trickier than controlling inanimate parts. At some level, the yeast will decide how far the technology applies.