It is not unknown of that life science technology and in particular synthetic biology offers promising solutions to pressing global challenges. For example, the production of biofuels in microbes could be a sustainable alternative to fossil-based fuels (see also my post below). However, the potential benefits of synthetic biology and its related fields don’t stop there. In fact, “SynBio” might have the power to impact almost every aspect of our lives from design and architecture to nutrition and cuisine. Here, I will focus on advancements on two particularly interesting areas: fashion & food.
London-based fashion designer Suzanne Lee explores the potential of synthetic biology to grow biomaterials for clothes. In her scheme, microbes metabolically produce cellulose, the biopolymer most known for its structural function in plants. After several steps of downstream processing, she then uses the biomaterial to tailor real wearable clothes. Though still in its technological infancy, this idea offers a great route to reduce animal and environmental damage. Check out her inspiring talk here on ted.com.
Another concept that sounds futuristic but might have a lasting impact on society if feasible is artificial meat. Dr. Mark Post from the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands is using tissue engineering to create what is sometimes also called in vitro meat. This term should not be confused with meat substitutes based on wheat or soy, but means real animal tissue with the exception that it’s grown in a cell culture dish. Again, the technology is still limited by many technical challenges, which has led the New York Times to speak of the “$325,000 burger”. However, the scientific concept has been proven and a first public tasting is about to happen soon.
Food and fashion are just two examples of how synthetic biology could impact our future society. Even though many ideas are still in their technological (and sometimes conceptual) infancy, I think they highlight quite nicely how our future might look like. Suppose these schemes really work – efficiently and cheap. What would be your opinion? Would you like to eat an artificial burger or be dressed in a leather jacket produced by microbes? I think the potential of these new technologies is very exciting and that they offer huge potential for sustainability and animal welfare. And the transformation would not need to induce a 100% change to e.g. only tissue-engineered meat. I am actually a fan of good burgers (preferably with cheese and bacon) and would not mind getting a “real”, i.e. conventional, burger for special occasions. But if I think of all the cafeteria-food in the world, I don’t see why synthetic meat, which spares the life of many animals, would not do just as well.