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From silk to milk: Why growing everything could be a 21st century game changer

Materials, energy and just about everything around us is finite. A more thorough understanding of the Earth’s limitations and commodity price volatility has made this a critical realisation for 21st century economies.

Still, conserving natural resources, while still enabling economic, environmental and social prosperity presents a significant challenge, especially in a context of increasing demands for “things”, in particular from the 3 billion new middle class consumers predicted to hit the global markets before 2050.

An emerging discipline may have at least part of the answer – want more “stuff”? Grow it!

Using micro-organisms, like yeasts and bacteria, modifying their DNA to turn them into microscopic factories, chemists and biologists are now able to grow a huge range of resources, from real cow’s milk to high-performance silk fibres.

Photo credit: Z33 art centre, Hasselt via / CC BY-NC-ND
Photo credit: Z33 art centre, Hasselt via / CC BY-NC-ND

A jacket weaved with a laboratory based copy of spider silk, an innovation developed by California-based startup Bolt Threads, was announced by Patagonia in May. Replicating the protein using yeast, sugar and water in a large scale fermentation process, they were able to spin fibres and turn them into textiles, producing a silk with superior and highly customisable performances characteristics like strength, softness and stretch.

Not only does the spider-like silk have the potential to be a bio-sourced fibre alternative to fossil based polyester products, but its characteristics could enable a whole range of new innovative product possibilities.

Muufri hopes to do the same by applying synthetic biology to milk. Based in Cork, the startup has engineered yeast to produce milk proteins, brewing them in a vat and mixing them with a few minerals, oils, fats and some galactose to produce a dairy product that doesn’t require heat treatment or cows.

Photo credit: Ars Electronica via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-ND
Photo credit: Ars Electronica via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

It is perhaps hard to understand, but absolutely no part of the milk that is consumed has been genetically modified, only the yeast, which is filtered out through the process. Muufri’s product is expected to hit the commercial markets in 2017 and it will not be advertised as a substitute, it is real milk.

Rapidly increasing understanding of DNA and genomes is bringing the costs down in terms of sequencing and creation of these products. Moreover, low-cost machines for synthesising DNA and open source biological information is reportedly helping to pace the rate of innovation.

If resources can be grown economically and in a way that is healthy for people and the environment, then there also exists the opportunity to embed synthetic biology with the principles of the circular economy, drawing on lessons from nature.

Photo credit: Taema via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-SA
Photo credit: Taema via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

There’s a science fiction, even unnatural, feeling associated with growing our things, but synthetic biology appears be an opportunity to create better resources that meets contemporary needs.

Critically, it is important to emphasise that this science is not genetic modification, but rather represents the harnessing of natural processes. Furthermore, as population growth and resource finiteness challenge global supply chains, can it really be said that modern milk farming or polyester production are particularly “natural”?

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The Author

Seb Egerton-Read

Seb Egerton-Read

Seb writes daily content for Circulate across the full spectrum of the website's topics. Previously he has spent five years as a freelance writer for a number of websites and blogs. You can e-mail Seb at seb[at]