Click on the links below to download the case studies.
“Synthetic biologists” apply computer-aided design and engineering to living organisms. The aim is to redesign existing biological organisms and even to create entirely new ones. Synthetic biology is “extreme genetic engineering” and its goal is to derive commercially-valuable compounds from novel living organisms rather than from conventional sources (e.g., crops, petroleum).
Currently, synthetic biology companies are engineering ‘metabolic pathways’ in microbes in order to create ‘biological factories’ that produce desired compounds. According to current scientific understanding, as few as eight key metabolic pathways may be responsible for almost all of the 200,000 known natural plant compounds. Synthetic biologists are rapidly decoding, re-constructing and patenting these pathways. In the words of one synthetic biologist: “We ought to be able to make any compound produced by a plant inside a microbe."
Initially, synthetic biology companies focused on biofuels, but due to problems with scale-up, some companies are shifting focus from biofuels to high-value / lower- volume products – especially compounds found in plants (e.g., essential oils, flavours, fragrances, colourants and pharmaceuticals) – which are traditionally cultivated by farming communities in the global South.
If commercially viable, synthetic biology’s patented organisms have the potential to de-stabilize natural product markets, disrupt trade and eliminate jobs and livelihoods. New, bio-based substitutes deemed ‘equivalent’ to natural products could have far-reaching impacts on agricultural economies, especially for those producers without the information or resources to respond to sudden shifts in natural resource supply chains.
Our case studies, linked below, explore these impacts.