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Synthetic Biology to Sustain Agriculture and Transform the Food System

Connor McKoy
Connor McKoy
November 7, 2019

For some, the term "synthetic biology" can bring back nightmares of the infamous college course that all students failed at least one. But what was once a roadblock to receiving a bachelors degree in science, is quickly turning into a robust field of biotechnology that is showing potential to transform how we manufacture products and grow food.

Synthetic biology can be used to develop renewable chemicals to create products like synthetic rubber for tires or bioplastics—even ingredients for personal care products like shampoos and lotions. But some companies like Amyris, Bayer, Cargill, Gingko Bioworks, and Pivot Bio are also using synbio to sustain agriculture and make food ingredients.

In a sit-down with Bloomberg, Gingko Bioworks' CEO Jason Kelly expanded on how his company is using synthetic biology to reduce agriculture's environmental impact, including through the development of soil microbes.

So Bayer came to us and they wanted to work on the problem of nitrogen fertilizer. The way you get it you pull atmospheric gas through a big chemical plant. You burn natural gas. Globally, 4% of greenhouse gases goes to making ammonia, nitrogen fertilizer. You put it on a field: Half goes to the crops, half goes in the river;

And excess nitrogen runoff can lead to "dead zones" in our large lakes and oceans. Luckily, nature has already shown us a way to get these necessary nutrients to plants because soybeans and other legumes have microbes in their roots that take on this chemical engineering process naturally.

Remember crop rotation? That’s what that was, rotating through crops that fertilized themselves. But corn, wheat, and rice—which make up half the global fertilizer usage—don’t have these microbes. What we’re doing is taking the DNA code from the microbes on the soybeans, redesigning it to work with the microbes in the corn. Then you apply it as a seed treatment, and it’ll fertilize that crop so you can wean corn off fertilizer over time.

Eventually, companies working in the this space hope to make nitrogen runoff a thing of the past. In addition to Gingko and Bayer, BIO member Pivot Bio is also developing soil microbes. You can read more about Pivot Bio's work on

Kelly goes on to illustrate how synthetic biology is contributing to the development of new alternative proteins that are taking over restaurants and fast food chains across the country—like the Impossible Burger.

You bite into that thing, and it bleeds. Where’s the blood come from in a veggie burger? What they’ve done is they’ve taken that brewers’ yeast and programmed it to include the gene for hemoglobin—which makes your blood red. They brew it up and produce hemoglobin. They add it to the burger, and lo and behold, It smells right. It tastes right. It cooks right.

Make sure you thank synthetic biology the next time you bite into an Impossible Burger.

From personal care products with a smaller carbon footprint, to fake blood for better tasting veggie burgers, to microbes that allow plants to grow more efficiently, BIO is excited to see what innovations synthetic biology will bring next. Who knows? Maybe one day we'll be able to use synbio to develop non-biological stuff like an iPhone. Kelly's response to that question? "Or at least we'll grow you a microchip."