5 incredible synthetic biology holy grails that could change the world

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Investors are still waiting for next-generation biotech to deliver on its enormous promise and potential, but just one of these Holy Grails would make the wait worth it.

 Biotechnology has come a long way since 1978, when Herbert Boyer successfully demonstrated that human insulin could be produced from bacteria engineered with recombinant DNA. The breakthrough technology pushed a little-known company called Genentech into the spotlight and forever changed the world. Genentech was acquired by Roche for $46.8 billion in 2009. The American bioeconomy — biotech crops, biochemicals, and biologic drugs — generated an estimated $324 billion of gross domestic product in 2012. And millions of people worldwide today rely on insulin and other biologic drugs daily.

You could argue that recombinant DNA was the first Holy Grail technology delivered by the field. Several more have followed. In fact, we’ve recently been treated to the development and ongoing commercialization of the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR — a true game-changer for the biotech ecosystem. Headache-inducing legal entanglements aside, CRISPR promises to help synthetic biology deliver on its enormous potential and could even be an integral tool needed to produce several other world-changing Holy Grails. Some are closer to reality than investors may think.

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So you’re too ethical to eat meat; but should cows go extinct?

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Vegetarianism and veganism are becoming more popular. Alternative sources of protein, including lab-grown meat, are becoming available. This trend away from farmed meat-eating looks set to continue. From an environmental perspective and a welfare perspective, that’s a good thing. But how far should we go? Would it be good if the last cow died?

Many people value species diversity. Very many feel the pull of the intuition that it’s a bad thing if a species becomes extinct. In fact, we sometimes seem to value the species more than we value the individual members. Think of insects, for example. The life of a fly might be of trivial value, but each fly species seems considerably more valuable (despite the lack of any direct instrumental value to us of flies). Do we – should we – value cattle? Should we be concerned if cows (or a subspecies of cows) is threatened with extinction? Should we take steps to preserve them, just as we take steps to conserve pandas and wolves?

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Here’s how we could feed a million people on Mars

 

Plant growth chamber on Mars

If we want to colonize Mars, we’re going to need to figure out a way to feed ourselves there, and continuously sending food to the Red Planet isn’t a sustainable plan.

But now, a team of researchers thinks it’s figured out a way to produce enough food on Mars to feed a million people — and they say their plan to make Martian colonists self-sufficient would take just a hundred years to implement.

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Gene-edited cattle have a major screwup in their DNA

 

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Bid for barnyard revolution is set back after regulators find celebrity “hornless” bovines contaminated by bacterial genes.

They were the poster animals for the gene-editing revolution, appearing in story after story. By adding just a few letters of DNA to the genomes of dairy cattle, a US startup company had devised a way to make sure the animals never grew troublesome horns.

To Recombinetics—the St. Paul, Minnesota gene-editing company that made the hornless cattle—the animals were messengers of a new era of better, faster, molecular farming. “This same outcome could be achieved by breeding in the farmyard,” declared the company’s then-CEO Tammy Lee Stanoch in 2017. “This is precision breeding.”

Except it wasn’t.

Food and Drug Administration scientists who had a closer look at the genome sequence of one of the edited animals, a bull named Buri, have discovered its genome contains a stretch of bacterial DNA including a gene conferring antibiotic resistance.

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This brilliant hydroponic system puts a whole garden on your countertop

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Growing your own food is one of life’s great pleasures—plus it’s good for you and for the environment. But in increasingly tight, urban homes, we don’t all have room for gardens. And hydroponic systems, as appealing as they may be, often appear to be a whole lot of hardware for only a bit of actual green. Some fresh arugula would be nice for dinner, but who wants giant plastic box taking up half their kitchen to get a few leaves?

The Rotofarm, by an Australian company called Bace (which appears to have produced skincare products in a past life), is a space-friendly hydroponic system, and it doubles as a beautiful sculpture in your home. With a circular design, which rotates plants like a Ferris wheel through the day, the Rotofarm is able to fit nearly five feet of growing area inside a countertop footprint of just 11 inches. Water is dispersed through the nutrient and water reservoir in the stainless steel base, and a bright LED grow light lives in the middle like a tiny sun. Then to harvest, you can tilt the farm 180-degrees and pull off its clear cover. You take what you want (kale, mint, lettuce, spinach, or, yes, marijuana), and close it back up.

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Electric powered farm vehicles set to revolutionise agriculture sector

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 The use of battery power for agricultural vehicles and machinery promises to revolutionise the agricultural industry by lowering costs and improving production. From battery powered large tractors to autonomous small electric robots, battery and solar power are changing the face of agriculture.

Agriculture is under pressure to produce more food using a declining availability of additional arable land and water resources. Mechanised farming can improve food production in Africa, but requires energy, an increasingly costly input to the food production process. There is a need to control energy costs, as in any other industry, by the use of more efficient methods and machinery.

Agriculture is going through a revolution, brought about by new technology, moving to what is known as precision farming (PF), which uses satellite imagery, drones, ground based sensors, GSP systems and agri-robots to control the planting, growth and harvesting of crops. The traditional method of crop management involves blanket application of herbicides, pesticides and fertilizer, while PF makes use of automation and artificial intelligence to precisely control the amounts of fertilizer, herbicide and insecticide applied to crops, with resultant increased yield and greatly reduced use of the above. PF also reduces the energy used by agricultural machinery by directing action only where it is needed and focusing activities on specific areas only.

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Blockchains’s impact on food and farming, explained

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1. Is it possible to track where food comes from?

Several companies have launched services allowing shoppers to see a product’s journey from farm to fork, but they often depend on retailers agreeing to be transparent.

When you pop into a store to buy fresh fruit, vegetables or meat, it’s common for the packaging to reveal which country it is from. Some upmarket brands go further by offering stories about the farm and the conditions where the food was cultivated.

Tracking an item step-by-step through the manufacturing process can be hard — and, sometimes, even manufacturers and retailers themselves aren’t sure about a product’s journey.

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Lab-grown diary could soon become the food of the future

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First stop burgers, next stop cheese.

Lab-grown meat is getting a lot of attention along with plant-based meat substitutes. Technology is driving the industry toward providing alternatives to conventionally produced food products. Dairy proteins may be the next product produced in a lab, for use in fluid “milk” production and processed dairy products like yogurt and cheese, to name a few.

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MIT’s ‘cyber-agriculture’ optimizes basil flavors

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The days when you could simply grow a basil plant from a seed by placing it on your windowsill and watering it regularly are gone — there’s no point now that machine learning-optimized hydroponic “cyber-agriculture” has produced a superior plant with more robust flavors. The future of pesto is here.

This research didn’t come out of a desire to improve sauces, however. It’s a study from MIT’s Media Lab and the University of Texas at Austin aimed at understanding how to both improve and automate farming.

In the study, published today in PLOS ONE, the question being asked was whether a growing environment could find and execute a growing strategy that resulted in a given goal — in this case, basil with stronger flavors.

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How IoT is being used for Australian agriculture in 2019

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CSIRO’s Vertebrate Pest Detect-and-Deter (VPDaD) device

The development of IoT for agriculture is still in its early stages, but it looks promising as more farmers are putting these technologies to work.

Australian agriculture has historically been defined by long droughts and irregular rainfall. For farmers, these harsh conditions leave small margins for error, meaning that gruelling work on the paddock does not necessarily translate to healthy stock or strong crop harvests.

One way that farmers have adapted to these conditions is the use of Internet of Things (IoT) devices and sensors. But in comparison to other sectors, farmers have been slow to adopt these technologies due to concerns surrounding the cost of implementation and ongoing service—particularly when there is no immediate value received for certain IoT technologies, which can sometimes take several years of accumulating data before it shows its value.

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