There is nothing that turns the collective stomach quite like the word “Frankenfood.” As rallying cries go, this one is brilliant in its simplicity: three little syllables, nice alliteration, and even an allusion to a literary and cinematic monster—all crunched into one word. It’s an instant warning to avoid such food.
Frankenfood, of course, refers to plants that have been genetically modified in some way. This might include crops that have been given a genetic boost to grow despite a drought or pest, or fruits that have been made more flavorful or that stay ripe longer. GMOs, as these genetically modified organisms are known, have been more or less accepted in some countries such as the U.S., but have been banned in many others due to public outcry, particularly in Europe.
It is tough to restore the public image of something once it has acquired such a viscerally-effective label. In the next few decades, it is very unlikely that GMO-based food will become accepted in countries where it is currently banned.
Which begs the question: what about synthetic biology? Science and industry are marching along with advances from this relatively new form of biological engineering, especially in the areas of biofuel and chemical production. Is it possible for this field to gain enough traction and acceptance without triggering the anti-GMO reaction? Or will some clever Frankenfuel-esque label bring this field to a screeching halt?
A biologist I know likes to say that synthetic biology isn’t good or bad; like any science, it can be used for good or bad things, depending on the people doing the work. The promise of synthetic biology is extraordinary: endless supplies of cheap, environmentally-friendly fuels; clean, low-cost biopharmaceutical compounds; and industrial enzymes and chemicals that can be produced without petroleum.
But GMOs had similar promise. Who would oppose crops that could resist drought? Who wouldn’t want fruit that stayed fresh longer? As scientists developed these plants, their advances were seen in the research community as great strides toward feeding the world’s burgeoning population while arable land dwindled. After all, some 50 years ago Norman Borlaug became one of the most celebrated people in the world when his genetic crossing experiments produced a high-yielding wheat strain that was credited with saving lives in countries such as India and Mexico. We still call it, with admiration and enthusiasm, the “Green Revolution.” But had Borlaug used today’s genetic modification technology instead of genetic backcrossing, he might have found himself out of work rather than the winner of a Nobel prize.
Scientists, entrepreneurs, and policymakers have learned a great deal from the GMO experience, but it remains to be seen whether that will be enough to secure the future of synthetic biology. Indeed, thought leaders in the field are trying to keep ahead of things this time by self-policing; these recent policy recommendations from the J. Craig Venter Institute and other scientific organizations are a good example of that.
One major initiative that has helped to encourage open minds about synthetic biology is an annual global competition called iGEM, short for International Genetically Engineered Machines, which pits teams of high school or college students against each other in an effort to design the best new biological component or most useful engineered organism. The first competition was held in 2004 with just five teams participating; by last year, that number had grown to nearly 250. Participants have built a substitute for red blood cells, a biosensor for arsenic, bacteria that turn different colors, and much more. In addition to these innovations, the competition is churning out legions of young students who understand synthetic biology and can educate others about its potential to benefit society.
That education is at the heart of the matter. Many people familiar with GMO crops believe that public opinion was formed without much understanding of the science behind this type of plant engineering. Asking the public to keep an open mind about synthetic biology will require strong educational campaigns to prevent fear-based reactions.
However, it is also important to recognize that there are legitimate questions that must be answered as the field progresses. How will engineered microbes interact with wild microbes? Will these forms of production have unintended consequences? Further study will be necessary—scientists just need enough time to perform those studies before public opinion snowballs against them.