Synthetic biology could use some questions from humans
Wired UK


This article appeared in Wired Magazine (UK Edition), February 2015.

Ecover announced in April 2014 that it was replacing palm oil with algal oil in its laundry detergent, a move that was in line with its sustainability vision. The ensuing furore took many by surprise: faced with articles in mainstream newspapers such as The Guardian and The New York Times, fierce blog debates, petitions from activists and environmental NGOs, Ecover hit pause and announced a six-month review, which is now under way.

Algal oil is produced by Solazyme, a San Francisco-based biotech company. Solazyme genetically engineers algae to produce, in this case, lauric acid. Fed on sugar from sugar cane, the algae secrete the chemical in huge vats. Algae are also being designed to make vanilla flavouring, fragrance and even face-cream ingredients. Ecover explained that it thought algal oil was "better" than palm oil, which is farmed in a way that damages the environment.

All well and good, except Solazyme is a synthetic-biology company, and Ecover seems an unlikely pioneer in the consumer use of synthetic biology, an emerging approach to genetic engineering. For 15 years, synthetic biology has been borrowing concepts from engineering in its attempt to build biological systems to make things for us to consume, cutting and pasting sequences of DNA into organisms. Drawing from biology, engineering and computer science, the aim is to tame the complexity of biology and make it more like digital technology: programmable and easy to engineer. Its pioneers imagine a future where our machines have come to life.

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