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Beyond GMO

synthetic biology iconWhat Is It?

Synthetic biology is an emerging technology in which biologists create organisms not usually found in nature, or “re-make” existing organisms to program them to perform specific functions – like programming a new yeast designed to produce synthetic biology vanilla during fermentation, that is then used in a lip balm. Researchers build synthetic biology organisms or genetic material from synthetic “programmed” genetic sequence units or completely from scratch.

Synthetic biology (often called “synbio”) ingredients are appearing in personal care and food products without labeling or long-term safety testing and research to ensure they’re safe for humans and ecosystems. At Made Safe, we believe that any ingredient without proper testing is considered “guilty until proven innocent.” Here are the details on why we avoid synthetic biology ingredients in all MADE SAFE certified products.

How Are Synthetic Biology Products Made?

Rather than just modify an existing organism (which is what a GMO is), synthetic biology creates completely new organisms with human-designed characteristics and purposes[1] to produce synbio versions of substances – like personal care product ingredients, foods, biofuels, medicines, and industrial materials.

For example, where a normal yeast might ferment to create alcohol, scientists will create completely new cell functions through new genetic code not found in nature (hence the word “synthetic”), so that the yeast will instead ferment to create squalane, a common ingredient in moisturizers.

This is the technique Made Safe primarily sees in the realm of personal care products, where synthetic biology yeast, bacteria, and algae are “coded” to produce a substance they wouldn’t produce under normal conditions. In this process, researchers create completely new cell functions called metabolic pathways in bacteria, yeast, and algae to transform them into “living chemical factories,” as technology watchdog ETC Group puts it.[2]

These living chemical factories are programmed to produce substances, often through fermentation processes. These substances include synbio versions of common personal care product ingredients like vanilla, patchouli, rose oil, and more.

This isn’t the only technique used to produce synthetic biology products. Other processes for building synthetic organisms include using “programmed” genetic sequences (called Biobricks)[3] that can be arranged and recombined; [4] chemically producing DNA from scratch;[5] constructing organisms from synthetic cells and cell parts;[6] creating new cell metabolic pathways from top to bottom; [7] and more.

Synthetic biologists often think of themselves more as engineers than biologists. This makes sense because their goal is to make organisms more “efficient” by cutting out extra genetic “trash.”[8] Synthetic biology organisms are simple, as opposed to the complex organisms found in nature.

The argument often used in favor of synbio is that it can result in a more cost-effective way to produce an expensive or rare ingredient. Synbio can also make an ingredient appear more “sustainable” because abundant raw materials – like sugar cane and corn – are used in the process, as opposed to requiring the harvest of rarer ingredients like rose or saffron. However, the use of big agricultural products like sugar cane and corn result in industrial monocropping, which decimates ecosystems and soil diversity, and requires huge amounts of potentially harmful pesticides.

How Is Synthetic Biology Distinct from GMO?

GMOs have been genetically engineered, meaning the organism’s existing DNA has been manipulated through artificial human intervention in a lab (as opposed to intervention through cross-breeding, which used to be the only way to manipulate organisms to get desired characteristics). It can be helpful to think of GMO as cutting and pasting DNA, then copying it.  

With synthetic biology, scientists do not simply cut and paste; instead, the genetic material is essentially “written” from scratch. Another helpful analogy is to think of synthetic biology as programming an organism’s DNA from start to finish.

The scale is also different. Genetic engineering usually tinkers with one or two genes; synthetic biology tinkers with or creates an entire genome or genome clusters.[9]

What’s frustrating for shoppers about this is that, according to regulation, products containing synbio ingredients are allowed to be labeled non-GMO. GMO foods and personal care product ingredients contain traces of GMO DNA in the material’s final form that can be detected using lab testing.

However, with synthetic biology, an ingredient can be produced using genetic modification or engineering, but that final ingredient will not contain GMO DNA. That’s because the organism producing the ingredient is synthetically built, not the ingredient itself. The “living chemical factories” are what make the ingredient synthetic biology, not the ingredient itself. Thus, it can’t be detected by lab testing the way GMOs can.

Regardless of whether the final ingredient is considered GMO, synthetic genetic building is used in the process of creating that ingredient. So technically, according to the regulatory definition of GMO, these ingredients aren’t GMO. But Made Safe, watchdog groups, and other NGOs — seeing the rush of these ingredients to market — recognize these ingredients for what they are: heavily genetically engineered and deserving of a proper labeling, increased scrutiny, and independent long-term study.

The Concern

The problem with synthetic biology is that it has been studied so little that researchers don’t know what possible effects it could have on human or environmental health.

With this technology, scientists are literally creating organisms that didn’t evolve through the natural order over thousands of years; the introduction of these synbio organisms into our environment or onto our bodies could cause potential problems, as these organisms don’t exist in nature.

Scientists are also mixing together genes that have never been mixed before, resulting in characteristics that can’t necessarily be anticipated from looking at the genes on their own.[10]

The bottom line is that synthetic biology ingredients are quickly entering products.[11] But because of confusing jurisdictions of US agencies and regulations, synthetic biology often falls through the cracks, leading to a lack of regulation in their use and labeling.[12] 

There may be incredible potential for this technology, but we think it needs to be studied for human and ecosystem safety before widespread open-market use. We also want to see responsible use restrictions, labeling requirements, and regulatory policies in place.

However, because this is not currently the case, to protect you and your family from the unknowable consequences of synbio, Made Safe does not permit synthetic biology ingredients in certified products.

What Are the Most Common Synbio Ingredients in Personal Care?

These are common synthetic biology ingredients that are documented by advocacy organizations as well as commonly seen in the MADE SAFE Screening Process:

How to Avoid It

  • Look for the most common synbio personal care product ingredients on labels and ask the manufacturer if they used synthetic biology in the process of making that ingredient. Avoid that product unless it has been third-party verified to not contain synbio. (See our list above of the most common synbio ingredients used in personal care.)
  • When shopping for foods, look for USDA Organic, Soil Association, and Non-GMO Project Verified products, as all three organizations work to prevent genetic engineering in foods.
  • Look for MADE SAFE certified household and personal care products. We do not permit synthetic biology ingredients with as much diligence as possible. We partner with other organizations that monitor the marketplace and document synthetic biology ingredients that already in use and are forthcoming. All MADE SAFE certified ingredients are screened against this list to avoid the use of synbio.
  • Be aware that some third-party certifications or “natural” personal care product verifiers do allow synthetic biology in their programs.[23] If you’re not sure, ask them in specific detail how they ensure no synbio ingredients in their products. If they can’t provide detailed answers, they may be permitting synbio.