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A SynBio Carol of Merriment and Science

Food & Nutrition
Biomanufacturing, Chemicals & Materials
Health & Medicine
Consumer Goods
Peter Bickerton, PhD
December 12, 2023

You all know the song. But did you know there have been many versions of the Twelve Days of Christmas over the years?

The words have changed quite a lot. Between partridges in pear trees and drummers drumming, there’s been all sorts from squabs to peacocks, roaring bulls, racing asses, and haring hens.

Even the best bit—five gold rings!—was switched out once in 1864. Thankfully, that version didn’t last long.

But in this new era of biomanufacture, we reckon it’s time for another lyrical twist.

So here’s a new carol to serenade your guests this holiday season, along with a bunch of interesting synthetic biology ideas that are set to shake up your festive season.

On the First Day: A Partridge in a Poplar Tree

According to some estimates, the US produces a whopping 4.6 million lbs of wrapping paper each year. That’s a lot of trees.

Earlier this year, researchers at North Carolina State University used CRISPR to engineer poplar trees to have less lignin. That could make fiber production cleaner and greener. At the forest scale, greenhouse gas emissions could go down by up to 20%.

“We’re using CRISPR to build a more sustainable forest,” said NC State’s Rodolphe Barrangou. 

Good news for guilt-free gifting!

(While we’re on the subject of shrubbery, anyone for a self-lighting Christmas tree engineered with firefly proteins?)

Two Undead Dodos

Don’t worry, you didn’t mistype 28 days later. It's the holiday season after all! 

Colossal Biosciences really is bringing the Dodo—a bird that would be fairly closely related to today’s Turtle Doves—back from the dead.

It’s definitely a nice pivot from the stories of mass extinction we’ve all been hearing about lately.

Thanks to modern DNA sequencing methods and a skull from Denmark’s Natural History Museum, the genome of the Dodo is being analyzed.

That’s just the start of a journey not totally dissimilar to Jurassic Park, culminating in surrogacy through a chicken. In between, the team will use the DNA of the Dodo’s closest living relative—the Nicobar pigeon—to help reconstruct the Dodo genome.

With its historic reports of disgustingness, it’s unlikely to reach your festive dinner table anytime soon. Although, there is at least one company making mammoth meatballs out there…

Three Cultured Hens

We’re not accusing the French of being uncultured here. This is something else completely!

It’s been ten years since the world was introduced to the lab-grown steak. A decade down the line, if you’re in the right zip code, you can nibble a chicken kebab made from single cells extracted from an egg.

After FDA and USDA approval for sale in the US, Eat Just’s GOOD Meat has already been on the menu in Washington DC restaurant China Chilcano. Upside Foods’ chicken filets, meanwhile, can be eaten at Bar Crenn.

While the road to scalability and profitability may be a little rocky—this is a pioneering industry, after all—it might not be long until you can pick up a bag of cultured nuggets (or some of Vow’s Japanese Quail) at your local store.

Four Pig-Free Wurst

Look, there are only so many bird references we can cover before we really start scraping the barrel.

However, a festive favorite in the UK is in for a sustainable sizzle as Dutch synthetic biology startup Meatable revealed this year that it could bubble up a banger from a single stem cell in a matter of days.

They use’s Opti-Ox technology to differentiate stem cells into highly specific and pure cultures of muscle and fat cells in record time. If your 2024 features Singapore, you may be able to tuck into one of their sausages.

Wrap it in cultured bacon from Uncommon, who raised $30 million in series A funding this year, and those animal-free pigs in blankets are set for your Christmas table in the not-too-distant future!

Another company in the cultured pork space, Fork and Good in the US, was named as a World Economic Forum technology pioneer this year.

Five Gold Rings

It’s a classic for a reason. It’s the hook that keeps the whole song together. No one knows the rest of the lyrics, anyway. Beyond five gold rings, it’s just a confused medley of merriment and mumbling.

Luckily, we’ve got a completely non-tenuous link to synthetic biology here, and it’s the new gold mine. Waste.

Allonnia is a great example. The company’s portfolio includes microbes that can bioremediate heavy metal waste associated with mining—a win-win that cleans up wastewater and provides a high-value product.

Another startup amongst the gold rush is German company BRAIN, which is going through a database of 50,000 microbes to find the best miniature metallurgists out there to extract precious metals from waste. 

New Zealand startup Mint Innovation is also mining gold in urban settings, from old computer parts, for example, using “only 2% of the power and water per kilogram of gold compared with conventional mined resources.”

Six Yeast-A-Laying

These days, laying eggs is not limited to mere geese!

Synthetic biology company Every is making sure that we can get all their gooey goodness through precision-fermented yeast engineered with chicken egg proteins.

It’s good news for vegan bakers. Every’s proteins passed the French pastry test as they were whipped up into Chantal Guillon vegan macarons last year. 

Unfortunately, the whole egg is a lot more complex to achieve. The egg nog, probably for a long while yet, will have to rely on the real thing.

Incidentally, Every also makes pepsin—a digestive enzyme supplement that might come in handy if you go a bit heavy on the turkey this year.

Seven Salmon (not) Swimming

This song always lacked a nice bit of seafood, which, after all, is the dish of choice in many European countries on December 24.

If sustainable sushi is your thing—and seafood consumption sure is unsustainable at present, farmed or fished—then Widtype may have the answer. Like the cultured meat companies we’ve already mentioned, they’re brewing up fish cells into tasty flesh.

Added bonus—it’s mercury-free!

If tuna is more up your street, then look no further than BlueNalu. German startup Bluu Seafood is also in on the action, exploring a range of fish, including rainbow trout.

Singapore-based Shiok Meats—named a World Economic Forum 2023 technology pioneer this year—with its offerings of shrimp, crab and lobster, is aiming to soon crack the US market, too. 

Eight 'Maids'-A-Milking

There are quite a few synthetic biology companies innovating dairy, complementing one of nature’s most nourishing ingredients. Plus, you know, milk chocolate!

We recently featured TurtleTree, whose founder, Fengru Lin, was inspired to make cell-based milk to help realize her passion for cheesemaking.

The company has since turned its hand to the more valuable constituents of milk, such as the ‘miracle molecule’ lactoferrin. This pink gold is worth around $1000 per kilo and can give a health boost to plant milk and adult nutrition products.

Protein shakes are also being shaken up thanks to Perfect Day’s whey protein, while Eden Brew is making synthetic biology ice cream. Even mozzarella-like substitutes are coming, thanks to companies like Change Foods and New Culture.

The trend is global. Brazil’s Updairy and Israel’s Remilk are in on the cow-free action.

It’s not just cow milk, either. Conagen uses an enzyme-driven process to make more sustainable human milk compounds for infant formula to better mimic breast milk.

'Nine' Ladies Leading

This year, we’ve been celebrating the incredible women of synthetic biology.

Here’s another chance to read up on the women leading the synthetic biology revolution, reimagining our food, founders taking the world by storm, investors betting big on synthetic biology, and storytellers communicating the full spectrum of synthetic biology’s capabilities.

Ten Jumpers Jumping

December is the month in which any sweater is fair game. Your wardrobe monstrosity suddenly becomes the height of fashion. Workplaces abound with Christmas jumper competitions. You may even take up knitting.

But what’s not often considered when we snap up the latest fashion is the environmental cost of the dyes used to color them.

Trillions of tons of water globally are used to dye clothes each year, and wastewater is often contaminated with highly polluting chemicals as a result. Then, there are the petrochemicals that go into dye production.

Among the lords leaping into a more sustainable future are startups like the UK’s Colorifix and the US’s Huue.

Huue is taking a synthetic biology approach to indigo blue, giving our ubiquitous jeans a fossil-fuel-free… hue. How? By turning sugar into dye using microbes.

Colorifix, which uses a similar approach, found in a Life Cycle Assessment last year that its solution uses 77% less water and 80% fewer chemicals compared with conventional methods run at the same plant.

Eleven Pipers Piping

What’s more festive than baking a Christmas cookie? You’ve got to love piping that colored icing.

Michroma is an Argentinian startup whose journey began with food colors. Their first product is Red+, pH, and temperature-stable food dye that can be used in goods from cakes to plant-based burgers (or Christmas cookies, why not?!).

It’s a good alternative to carmine, the dye traditionally extracted from crushed beetles. A big bonus is you don’t have to mash up a bunch of beetles.

Instead, Michroma’s process uses filamentous fungi grown in bioreactors. Israel-based Phytolon, meanwhile, uses yeast to produce the pigments normally found in plants such as beetroot, cactus fruit, and pitaya. 

Phyloton is working with Ginkgo Bioworks to scale up the production of their pigments across the full yellow-purple spectrum.

Aside from fungi, Spira Inc. has used algae to make a range of vivid dyes, including a red pigment made from seaweed. Spira Blue was particularly special, being a rare, truly blue natural pigment.

Twelve Fungal Fittings

Finally, if you’re worried about plastic pollution this holiday period, you won’t be alone.

Mercifully, synthetic fungi might have the mycelial medicine for your malaise. From furniture to beauty products, synthetic biology company Ecovative is making more sustainable materials using mushrooms.

From fungal packaging to beauty products and leather - is there a festive gift that won’t get a mycelial makeover in the coming years?

Maybe one day, the twelve drummers will be drumming on a biomanufactured drum.

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