Natural Products — from plant-based production to synthetic biology

A 90-minute discussion on the science, technology, risks, promises and policies surrounding a new technology with great disruptive potential. Since the industrial revolution there has been a shift in the production of natural products (drugs, chemicals, dyes, micronutrients etc.) from plant-based production and chemical extraction to de novo synthesis through synthetic chemistry and more recently by synthetic biology techniques. Recent advances in synthetic biology have discovered ways to replace the cultivation of, for example, the anti-malarial drug plant artemisia, poppy and vanilla with yeast fermentation, a process akin to "brewing beer". These advances often lower the price of natural products and can lead to widespread adoption of life-saving drugs. Biological means of organic chemical production are also significantly more enviromentally friendly compared to petrochemical and wood-pulp based industries. However they may also pit large multinational companies against the interests of small-holder farmers in the developing world. Further, while some of these products are marketed as natural (since they are produced through biological and not chemical means), others feel that this is an attempt to deceive consumers. We propose a discussion around this topic encompassing questions on: the costs vs. benefits of this technological revolution, the role of plant technologies (e.g. biofortification), the impact on biodiversity with the replacement of rare-plant cropping with fermentation, the ethical issues arising from the future replacement of farms with fermenters and the role of the consumer.

Our panellists:

Brian King

Post-doctoral researcher at the University of Copenhagen and co-founder of TychoBio (www.tycho.bio). TychoBio is a young company working on industrial production of plant-derived small molecules by introducing new genes into moss.

Ana Deplazes-Zemp

Dr Ana Deplazes-Zemp is a research associate at the Institute of Biomedical Ethics at the University of Zurich. A doctorate in Biochemistry from ETH Zurich, Ana's current research interests include the ethical effects of synthetic biology, responsible research and innovation in biotechnology, definitions of life and the boundary between natural and artificial/life and machines.

Francois Meienberg

Fran├žois Meienberg has worked at Public Eye (www.publiceye.ch) (formerly the Berne Declaration) since 1999, with a focus on Intellectual Property Rights and Agriculture. He has followed Convention of Biological Diversity, Access and benefit sharing and FAO-Treaty negotiations intensely and worked on Joint Projects and Campaigns with different stakeholders to reveal Biopiracy and implement ABS include: the Basmati Patent, Swartzia Madagascariensis, Hoodia, Pelargonium Patent and Rooibos.

Karin Metzlaff

See previous section

Herve Vanderschuren

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