Emeryville (California) Vanilla, saffron, patchouli. For centuries, spices and flavourings like these have come from exotic plants growing in remote places like the jungles of Mexico or the terraced hillsides of Madagascar
“Exotic scents…” Developments of events
. Some were highly prized along ancient trading routes like the Silk Road.
Now a powerful form of genetic engineering could revolutionize the production of some of the most sought-after flavours and fragrances. Rather than being extracted from plants, they are being made by genetically modified yeast or other micro-organisms cultured in huge industrial vats. “It’s just like brewing beer, but rather than spit out alcohol, the yeast spits out these products,” said Jay D Keasling, a co-founder of Amyris, a company that is a pioneer in the field. However, while yeast makes alcohol naturally, it would not produce the spices without the extensive genetic rejiggering, which is called synthetic biology. The advent of synthetic biology raises thorny economic and regulatory issues, such as whether such yeast-made ingredients can be called natural and whether developing countries dependent on these crops will be hurt.
Supporters say the technique could benefit food and cosmetic companies, and ultimately consumers, by reducing wild swings in price, availability and quality that come from dependence on agriculture. It may even relieve pressure on some overharvested wild plants like sandalwood. The products, which taste or smell nearly the same as the real thing, are coming quickly and even moving beyond flavours and fragrances to include other commodities, like rubber and drugs.