Synthetic vanillins are generally produced using petrochemicals or wood pulp, and some in the industry consider them to be harmful to the environment. One such organisation is Swiss company Evolva, which has developed a way to brew vanillin from yeast - deemed a more sustainable source (5).

CLAIM: Transgenes spread to wild crops.

Environmental Impact and Sustainability

While it is true that organisms produced through synthetic biology may escape into the environment and pose a threat to natural species, this risk is one that has been around since the onset of genetic engineering, and even selective breeding. Any organism that has been selectively bred or genetically engineered may have a competitive advantage over unmodified organisms. It was this threat, among others, that ultimately caused the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to create the Coordinated Framework. Under the  Coordinated Framework, products produced by genetic engineering are to be regulated by already existing federal legislation. For example, drugs produced by genetic engineering would be regulated by the FDA and any other agency involved in drug regulation. The OSTP acknowledged that products produced through synthetic biology are not inherently more dangerous than products produced by other methods. The ramifications of this policy is that synthetic biology products are regulated based on the risk that they pose rather than the process by which they are produced. There are existing frameworks in place to prevent the release of harmful genetically modified microbes (EPA), animals (FDA), and plants (APHIS). In addition, all facilities that receive NIH funding must comply with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Guidelines for Research Using Recombinant DNA Molecules. These guidelines mandate that research be carried out under the appropriate risk-based physical confinement conditions. This is put into place not only to protect researchers but to prevent the accidental release of synthetic organisms into the environment (1).

CLAIM: Synthetic organisms threaten biological diversity if they escape into the environment – either intentionally or unintentionally from a lab.




CLAIM: Suicide genes are an effective biological containment tool for genetically engineered plants and animals.

The influence of Synthetic Biology on natural ecosystems is a contentious topic on which some clarification is needed.

CLAIM: Biomass to feed synthetic biology products will be extracted from or cultivated mostly in the global South, disrupting fragile ecosystems and exacerbating environmental damage from industrial crop production.

CLAIM: Further pressure will be placed on land and water resources, already in short supply for food production. There is simply not enough land (or plant matter) for all the uses that are being contemplated.

CLAIM: Synthetic biology food products will speed rain forest destruction and harm sustainable farmers and poor communities across the world.

“Suicide gene” is a bit of ambiguous term that most often refers to a gene in a genetically modified bacteria that will cause the bacteria to die automatically if certain conditions are met. The concept of having a self-destruction eukaryote is more complex than with a single-celled organism. Suicide genes are incredibly effective with bacteria, however. Using similar methods in plants or animals would either be cruel or a redundancy (4).

This one is true under certain conditions. There is one infamous case in which a farmer that didn’t use a particular strain of corn was sued by an agricultural sciences company that had inadvertently pollinated his crops.    The way that plants reproduce (with pollen) makes it difficult to entirely stem their genes from spreading via pollinating animals or the wind. Researchers have theorized that a gene that intentionally sterilizes crops could be inserted into GMOs, but that would lower reproductive rates of nearby plants of the same species. Ultimately the most important part about cross-pollination is that scientists would not run the risk of spreading genes with wildly unpredictable effects.

First, many synthetic biology products are bacterially based, and bacteria consume an incredibly minimal amount of biomass, even in large quantities since they are very efficient in getting nutrients from agar or other media. Even if this claim is only referencing genetically modified crops, these effects will take place even with additional growth of normal crops. In fact, GMO crops may one day be engineered to require less nutrients than non GMO crops, easing the pressure on these fragile ecosystems.

First, many synthetic biology products are bacterially based, and bacteria consume very little water and take up very little space. Even if this claim is only referencing genetically modified crops, GMO crops may one day be engineered to require less water than non GMO crops. Additional synthetic biology engineering may improve the viability of hydroponic production of crops, freeing up land that is currently being used for farming.