“You can now build a cell the same way you might build an app for your iPhone,” said Newman, chief science officer of Amyris.
Some believe this kind of work marks the beginning of a third industrial revolution — one based on using living systems as “bio-factories” for creating substances that are either too tricky or too expensive to grow in nature or to make with petrochemicals.
The rush to biological means of production promises to revolutionize the chemical industry and transform the economy, but it also raises questions about environmental safety and biosecurity and revives ethical debates about “playing God.” Hundreds of products are in the pipeline.
Laboratory-grown artemisinin, a key anti-malarial drug, went on sale in April with the potential to help stabilize supply issues. A vanilla flavoring that promises to be significantly cheaper than the costly extract made from beans grown in rain forests is scheduled to hit the markets in 2014.
On Wednesday, Amyris announced another milestone — a memorandum of understanding with Brazil’s largest low-cost airline, GOL Linhas Aereas, to begin using a jet fuel produced by yeast starting in 2014.
Proponents characterize bio-factories as examples of “green technology” that are sustainable and immune to fickle weather and disease. Backers say they will reshape how we use land globally, reducing the cultivation of cash crops in places where that practice hurts the environment, break our dependence on pesticides and result in the closure of countless industrial factories that pollute the air and water.
But some environmental groups are skeptical.
They compare the spread of bio-factories to the large-scale burning of coal at the turn of the 20th century — a development with implications for carbon dioxide emissions and global warming that weren’t understood until decades later.
Much of the early hype surrounding this technology was about biofuels — the dream of engineering colonies of yeast that could produce enough fuel to power whole cities. It turned out that the technical hurdles were easier to overcome than the economic ones. Companies haven’t been able to find a way to produce enough of it to make the price affordable, and so far the biofuels have been used only in smaller projects, such as local buses and Amyris’s experiment with GOL’s planes.
But dozens of other products are close to market, including synthetic versions of fragrances extracted from grass, coconut oil and saffron powder, as well as a gas used to make car tires. Other applications are being studied in the laboratory: biosensors that light up when a parasite is detected in water; goats with spider genes that produce super-strength silk in their milk; and synthetic bacteria that decompose trash and break down oil spills and other contaminated waste at a rapid pace.