Genetics & Genetic Engineering

What we do with genes & why?

We give our yeasts the ability to make ingredients that occur in plants or animals. We do this by giving them the genes that these plants or animals use to make the ingredient. To do this we use a range of molecular biology techniques.

This means our yeasts are genetically engineered. However the genes they contain are the same as, or variants on, the genes of the original plant or animal. Genes that you would normally eat if you ate the original plant or animal. Typically less than 1% of our yeast’s genetic sequence is altered.

Are your products genetically modified?

No, they are not.

For two main reasons:

All of the genes we use stay inside the yeast, whilst our products go outside. We feed the yeast sugar, which it takes up, turns into the desired ingredient, and then pumps outside of the yeast (we design the yeast so that it does that). So the ingredient ends up outside the yeast, whilst the genes stay inside. In the production process, once the fermentation process has stopped, normally the first thing we do is to filter off the yeast. We then purify the ingredient from the yeast-free broth.

There are no genes in our final product. Because all the genes stay in the yeast, and because the final product is purified, there is no genetic material (or protein) in the final ingredient.

Either of these reasons is enough to make our products count as not genetically modified under European Union law (we cite European law here since it is perhaps the toughest standard around). Both mean we are doubly sure. And yes we have had our ingredients reviewed and approved under European Food Safety Authority procedures, which would not have happened if they were “GM”.

If you want an analogy, then consider oxygen. We all breathe oxygen every minute of our lives.   That oxygen is made by plants. Given that genetically modified plants have been widely planted around the world for some twenty years, much of the oxygen that you breathe has been made by a genetically modified plant. Yet no one regards this oxygen as genetically modified, or indeed has suffered any ill effects from breathing it.

But I still do not like that you use genetic engineering

We would ask you to consider WHY you do not like genetic engineering, and whether those reasons apply in our case. But of course we respect your right to hold that opinion.

Our aim is to describe what we do and why we think it is responsible to use such techniques. We believe the benefits (ingredients with health benefits, ingredients made in a much more sustainable and affordable way) greatly outweigh the risks (which for what we do, we believe are essentially zero).

Can you describe your products as “organic” or similar?

Knowing and respecting the values of the organic movement, then we think that would be misleading. Whilst in some cases it might be possible, in other cases such words are legally defined to exclude products whose production involves modern science. We think it is fairer all around if we choose not to muddy the waters with such statements.

Bridging the gap between public perception and scientific consensus

In many countries, on many topics, there is a wide gap between public perception and scientific consensus, which does not serve any of our interests.

This is true also in our field, where both activists and industry are often guilty about misinforming on the benefits and risks. Both sides would do well to revisit Recommendation 15 of the 2010 US President’s Bioethics Commission, namely that:

… Individuals and deliberative forums should strive to employ clear and accurate language. The use of sensationalist buzzwords and phrases such as “creating life” or “playing God” may initially increase attention to the underlying science and its implications for society, but ultimately such words impede ongoing understanding of both the scientific and ethical issues at the core of public debates on these topics. To further promote public education and discourse, a mechanism should be created, ideally overseen by a private organization, to fact-check the variety of claims relevant to advances in synthetic biology.

  • The amazing history of processed food

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  • The Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologies

    Ahead of its time: the US Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues of synthetic biology
  • Unhealthy Fixation

    Some have an unhealthy fixation on GMOs. This investigative report in Slate helps explain why.

  • It’s practically impossible to define “GMOs”

    For all the hype, a longtime biotech reporter explains that it is virtually impossible to actually define GMOs.

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