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Insight & Intelligence™ : Jun 28, 2013

Synthetic Biology May Protect Your Food This Summer

GEN's John Sterling talks about the world's first synthetic biology-derived food test.
  • John Sterling

A Boston-based start-up biofirm expects to soft launch the world's first synthetic biology-derived food test in August. Sample6 Technologies has used a bioillumination platform to help engineer a cocktail of bacteriophages that lights up when it comes into contact with listeria bacteria. The company says its technology can also be applied to other bacterial species that infect foods.

The premise behind the test, named Sample6 Detect/L, is that the sooner contaminated food is detected, the better. Current listeria diagnostics require about a day to work while the Sample6 product reportedly provides results in three to four hours. The company is marketing the test to food manufacturers and distributors so that any contaminated food items are discovered before they hit grocery shelves. The test targets the environmental surfaces which are found at food processing facilities. "If you find it [listeria] there, you have to assume it makes it onto the food," said Michael Koeris, Ph.D., co-founder and vp of operations at Sample6 Technologies.

The process of creating the phages involves their interaction with yeast intermediates after which the company re-engineers the phage genome. Sample6 views synbio as an extension of genetic engineering with different tools.

According to Dr. Koeris, "prior to our innovation, engineering phages has been a one-off, molecular biology-heavy task where you could only engineer a few phages such as t4, t7, m13, lambda, etc. We are now able to engineer the coding genes for luminescent enzymes much more easily into the phages."

There have been numerous conferences along with much discussion about the benefits and safety of synthetic biology. Most of the concerns focus on the release of completely designed new microorganisms into the environment or the creation of synbio weapons by terrorists. A good deal of praise needs to go to synbio scientists because they began to address these issues almost from the beginning of the development of the science of synthetic biology. The introduction of the Sample6 food test can be counted as one of their first victories.