Are Microbes the Taste-Makers of the Future?
J Thoendell stashed this in Food
The vast majority of the vanillin found in today’s products – from food to perfume – is derived from synthetic processes that convert guaiacol to vanillin in a three-step process. Both the natural and chemical methods are costly and environmentally burdensome, but a new approach using the advances of synthetic biology offers a promising third way. Starting with glucose, yeast is able to “ferment it just like beer,” explains Kevin Munnelly, CEO of the biotech company Gen9. “It’s the first flavor made by synthetic biology, and it’s entering commercial viability.”
To get to this point, genes for three enzymes from three different organisms – a dung mold, a bacterium, and humans – were inserted into the yeast cells. In Munnelly’s view, the construction of an engineered pathway to produce a high-value molecule such as vanillin is an important success story in the synthetic biology community. Given the multitude of biosynthetic and energy-procuring reactions taking place at any given time, the prospect of re-ordering metabolites and reaction steps in a rational manner is often over-optimistic. After all, a cell’s priority is to survive and replicate, not to produce tasty ice cream, but in the case of vanillin, the bioengineering team was able to accomplish both aims.
Predicting exactly how to achieve this tenuous balance between sustainable cell survival and product generation is challenging, but with reliable and affordable DNA synthesis, experimenters need not restrict themselves to a single attempt. “We can make a variety of different gene constructs, so you don’t have to pick just a few options to test,” says Munnelly. “And it’s an iterative process – we can do this quickly, so the results can feed back into the design.”