Amid rising antibiotic-resistant bacteria, synthetic biology finds new vistas

First, the good news for Kenya. The U.S. Agency for International Development has pledged to double funding for projects addressing food security in East Africa. Kofi Anan, a former Ghanaian president, also wrote to…

Amid rising antibiotic-resistant bacteria, synthetic biology finds new vistas

First, the good news for Kenya. The U.S. Agency for International Development has pledged to double funding for projects addressing food security in East Africa. Kofi Anan, a former Ghanaian president, also wrote to President-elect Donald Trump, urging him to protect the millions of jobs in our food processing and agricultural industries. In addition, many research institutions, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Agency for International Development, are investing a large amount of money to understand more about how microbes and bacteria can help farmers produce even more food.

But it’s time to focus on where the real revolution is: in what New York-based scientists call “hybrid engineering” — manipulating the behavior of organisms so that they produce more energy and water. The result: microbes that make their own fuel and can create better water.

“We are excited to be at the forefront of this new science that could revolutionize agriculture in ways that may even vastly improve our health,” said Michal Krasnansky, the director of development science and innovation at Aramex, an agricultural chemicals and materials company based in the Netherlands, at a meeting in Silicon Valley last year. “This revolution will take time, but it’s an important sector that needs our support,” Krasnansky said, according to a news article published last December on the website of Pennsylvania State University.

So, as someone who specializes in synthetic biology, I wanted to know: How close are we to a world in which antibiotic-resistant bacteria becomes a footnote and other microbes play a major role in food production?

Jason Drezner, an assistant professor of economics at Tulane University, had good news for me. The best part of this field has little to do with producing food and lots to do with addressing some of the major food challenges we face. “The challenges of food production are fundamentally technological,” he said. Here is Drezner on the burgeoning field of energy agriculture, that uses synthetic biology to design organisms that can transform carbon-laden or otherwise un-monitored biomass.

In general, Drezner says, most researchers in the field are focused on decreasing carbon use in agriculture. We eat a lot of meat and so agriculture uses a lot of fossil fuels, and we spend a lot of money to feed livestock. “The high carbon footprint of meat and the high carbon footprint of livestock were the least appetizing parts of the diet,” Drezner said. “So there was a lot of natural competition that could help solve the food supply problem.” However, there was one obstacle: the microbes that evolved to increase meat production do not use a lot of energy.

The answer, says Drezner, may lie in genetically tweaking a bacterial model that has specialized metabolic pathways that are similar to those that animals use. The resulting organism can produce carbon energy, but it does so much faster and efficiently, so it is no longer economical to raise a whole herd of cattle. The result is more meat without energy and water use.

There is no known timeline on when artificial microbes could have a significant impact on food production. But Drezner says that efforts to genetically engineer microbes are getting more specialized and that the technology is changing, even as the original scientific plan is changed. This is “part of the kind of warp drive in which this field is going at.”

What about antibiotic-resistant bacteria? Drezner says that the goal of production agriculture in this field is to create microbes that can break down a complex food product and recycle the carbon.

The goal is not to create a positive consequence, he says. “Our efforts are not fueled by a desire to fix a problem for the sake of solving a problem.”

The current focus is to make livestock that produce less carbon and consume less water. “That’s where you want to go. That’s an overall solution,” Drezner said. “I don’t want to say that we have a recipe of organisms that is going to deal with all of the problems with antibiotic resistance, but we can shift the direction of how much energy we give to livestock.”

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