August 20, 2014, by Brigitte Nerlich

Fermenting thought: A new look at synthetic biology

The_Brewer_designed_and_engraved_in_the_Sixteenth._Century_by_J_AmmanI have become involved in a new project related to synthetic biology. The University of Nottingham has received funding for a big Synthetic Biology Research Centre. I am a social scientist within the new team and in charge of keeping an eye on ‘responsible research and innovation’. This is not what this post is about though (but see here and here and, more importantly, here).


I recently went to a workshop related to this new centre during which the words ‘fermenting’ and ‘fermentation’ were used a lot. For the people involved in synthetic biology this is totally unsurprising, but for me it was a bit of a wake-up call.

In the past I had kept an eye on synthetic biology headlines around the creation of cells, the tinkering with genomes and the like. I even did a tiny bit of media analysis of a first wave of coverage (and hype) of synthetic biology in the mainstream press. While carrying out this research I had never become aware of the importance of the words ‘ferment’ or ‘fermentation’. I suspect that for me as for many other lay people synthetic biology as the new big science thing evokes the ‘creation of artificial life’ rather than ‘beer’.

Synthetic biology in the news

All this made me look again at English language news coverage of synthetic biology in 2010. Why 2010? Some background:

In the year 2000, the first draft of the human genome was announced in a flurry of publicity, a publicity that involved Craig Venter as one of the lead scientists working on the sequencing of the human genome. About a decade later scientists announced the creation of artificial or synthetic cells, such as the synthetic bacteria Mycoplasma genitalium in 2008 and Mycoplasma mycoides in 2010, with Venter, again, being one of the lead scientists. In May 2010 Venter published an article in Science Express announcing that his research group at the J. Craig Venter Institute ( had created the first self-replicating ‘artificial cell’. This was heralded in many mainstream media articles as the creation of artificial life and as scientists playing God.

When I checked the news database Lexis Nexis for all English language news again today for 2010 as a whole, I found nearly a thousand (991) articles on ‘synthetic biology’. I then added the search terms ‘ferment’ and ‘fermentation’ and discovered that only 61 of these articles contained the words ‘ferment’ or ‘fermentation’. The majority of these were published in obscure trade journals (apart from one in the more popular New Scientist) – many focusing on work within Amyris, a renewable products company providing sustainable alternatives to a broad range of petroleum-sourced products. Only a handful of articles mentioning ‘fermentation’ appeared in the mainstream press; interestingly two were in the Scottish press.

One article by Emma Cowing written on 23 May, 2010 for Scotland on Sunday, was entitled ‘The power to create’ and was particularly interesting. It quotes UK’s foremost expert on cloning, Ian Wilmut, as saying: “It’s probably hard to imagine all the applications of this technology… Our view is that we’re going from 6.8 billion to 9 billion people in the next 30 to 40 years, and we can’t provide the food, the energy, clean water or medicines for the 6.8 billion, so we need some radical new technology to be able to do that without destroying the planet for 9 billion people.” Wilmut then goes on to compare the new technology to fermentation: “As we learn more about the mechanisms that regulate cell function it may then become possible to change cells in order to give them new abilities that are useful to us … Human beings have done this in different ways for many years. Yeasts have been changed to make them more suitable for production of wine, beer or bread.” Comparing synthetic biology to making wine, beer or bread is a good move, I think.

The New Scientist (20 February, 2010) article also had a powerful headline: “Genetic code 2.0: Life gets a new operating system”. It goes on to say: “A new way of using the genetic code allows proteins to be made with properties never seen before – it could lead to new or ‘improved’ life forms. … Doing so should lead to the creation of whole new classes of materials, Chin says. And because they could be churned out by bacteria grown in large fermentation vats, it would probably be a cheaper way of producing them than chemical synthesis.” Here fermentation doesn’t quite evoke mundane food stuffs like beer; on the contrary, the word ‘vat’ probably triggers negative images, from witches cauldrons (‘toil and trouble’) to babies in vats, brains in vats, vats of artificial meat and so on. But still, fermentation may be an interesting conceptual anchor for creating an understanding of synthetic biology.

Biotechnology in the past

While musing about these things, I came across a book on the history of biotechnology which had escaped me so far, just as much as fermentation had. And lo and behold, it all began with fermentation. The book is by Robert Bud and entitled The Uses of Life: A history of biotechnology (1993). As Susan Lindee says in her review of the book, Bud stresses that the term biotechnology was coined in 1919 by “Hungarian agricultural engineer and pig farmer Karl Ereky”. But he begins his history of biotechnology even earlier “with seventeenth-century zymotechnology – G. E. Stahl’s term for practical fermentation – and its ramifications in the development of organic chemistry, agriculture, brewing, and the biological sciences. …. He explores the American chemurgic (‘chemistry at work’) movement, the rise of industrial fermentation processes in the American chemical industry, scientific and industrial microbiology, chemical engineering (penicillin); the green revolution, and so on.” Really interesting and new, at least, to me (ok, old!)!

Fermentation, not creation

Stressing the link between synthetic biology and fermentation (but not vats!) rather than only the ‘creation’ of artificial or improved life forms (a way of talking which hogged the headlines in 2010 and evoked images of scientists playing God) may be a way forward in engaging ordinary people with this new technology, one that the University of Nottingham excels in.

Image: The Brewer – 16th century – wikimedia commons


Posted in biotechnologyresponsible innovationsynthetic biology