A lot of proposed synthetic biology applications can seem pretty out there, but some are really out there. NASA is currently advertising open postdoctoral positions in synthetic biology, with particular emphasis on food production in space. Engineered organisms have the potential to do lots of things that would be useful for space colonists, from producing food and fuel to treating wastewater. Because organisms replicate themselves, future astronauts would only have to bring some spores and seeds and empty bioreactors, the organisms would do the rest of the work.
I am fascinated by these proposals, and other proposals large and small for how biological engineering might someday impact the way that we produce, process, and prepare our food. The way we eat and the way we imagine the "food of the future" is really complicated, and has a long and interesting history tied not only to our culinary cultures and the science of nutrition, but often to the hot new science and technology of the day.
In the 1890's, that technology was synthetic chemistry, making it possible to generate organic chemicals from inorganic starting materials. New industries were springing up that replaced old agricultural methods with chemical ones, in particular the production of synthetic dyes and flavors. This led some chemists to speculate on how this technology would be used a hundred years in the future, extrapolating the current industrial transformations into nearly every organic arena. This speculative application of synthetic chemistry to food production is detailed in an 1894 article in McClure's Magazine by Henry J.W. Dam titled "Foods in the Year 2000: Professor Berthelot's Theory that Chemistry Will Displace Agriculture." By 2000, Marcellin Berthelot, considered to be one of the greatest chemists of all time, believed that we would no longer have agriculture, that instead:
The epicure of the future is to dine upon artificial meat, artificial flour, and artificial vegetables...Wheat fields and corn fields are to disappear from the face of the earth, because flour and meal will no longer be grown, but made...Coal will no longer be dug, except perhaps with the object of transforming it into bread or meat. The engines of the great food factories will be driven, not by artificial combustion, but by the underlying heat of the globe.
What would this food synthesized from coal with geothermal power look like? What would it taste like?
We shall give you the same identical food, however, chemically, digestively, and nutritively speaking. Its form will differ, because it will probably be a tablet. But it will be a tablet of any color and shape that is desired, and will, I think, entirely satisfy the epicurean senses of the future.
"Food pills" are a common theme in science fiction, especially for space travel where astronauts have to travel light, and it's interesting to see how that has transformed, with NASA now thinking beyond synthetic chemistry to synthetic biology. But it's the scientific language of Professor Berthelot that's particularly interesting to me:
In order to clearly conceive these impending changes, it must be remembered that milk, eggs, flour, meat, and indeed, all edibles, consist almost entirely (the percentage of other elements is very small) of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen...These four elements, universally existing, are destined to furnish all the food now grown by nature, through the rapid and steady advance of synthetic chemistry.
Synthetic chemistry is the special science which takes the elements of a given compound, and induces them to combine and form that compound. It is the reverse of analytic chemistry, which takes a given compound, and dissociates and isolates its elements. Analytic chemistry would separate water into oxygen and hydrogen, and synthetic chemistry would take oxygen and hydrogen, mix them, put a match to the mixture, and thus form water. For many years past synthetic chemistry has had an eager eye upon food-making.
This analytic/synthetic transition is a narrative that has been adopted by synthetic biologists (PDF) and it's interesting to see how closely the language today mirrors that of the early synthetic chemists. As we move from analysis to synthesis we can develop amazing technologies, but we often also learn just how complicated things are, how systems are greater than the sum of their parts. We can measure the nutritional needs of a human at a chemical, molecular level and we can likely survive off of biochemically balanced tablets for a while, but we also know that eating real foods made out of real plants and prepared into balanced meals is the healthiest way to eat. Beyond that, we're not just chemicals, we're people, and people like to eat. When we apply our technologies to our foods, we have to remember not just the balance of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and vitamins, but the experience of eating. Hopefully as we speculate on food in the year 2100, synthetic biology will think beyond the food pill.