Synthetic Biology Weekly Mashup – 9/12/2013

The Synthetic Biology mashup is a weekly review of articles and pieces of news related to synthetic biology. While we share most of this on our twitter feed, if you need to catch up on this week’s headlines just read on!


McDonald’s RNAi potatoes spur new debate about GMO Regulation in the US

Innate™ and conventional potatoes 10 hours after being sliced.

Innate™ and conventional potatoes 10 hours after being sliced.

McDonald’s, the world’s biggest buyer of potatoes is being criticised by the advocacy group Food & Watch, backed by several NGOs, for buying genetically engineered potatoes from J. R. Simplot Co. This new potatoes variety, branded as innate by Simplot, diminishes black spots from bruising which lead a potato to go to waste and reduces the levels of the amino acid asparagine that can become a carcinogen at high temperatures, so has both environmental and health benefits. NGOs claim that altering the plant’s genes using RNA interference could ultimately affect the human health, as this technique is according to them not well understood and lacks an effective safety assessment. This new debate over innate potatoes comes at a pivotal moment in the US where States must decide over mandatory labelling of GMO food.

University of Illinois Research Lab Discovers the Function of Hidden Bacterial Genes Using DNA Assembler

A research group from the University of Illinois, published in Nature Communications this week a novel DNA editing method to investigate the function of bacterial hidden genes. So far, genes functions have been mostly extrapolated from analysing the proteins they produce. However this technic vastly reduces biological complexity as many genes do not produce proteins and protein production is adapted to the environment sensed by bacteria. This allows them to save energy, but makes it challenging for scientist to unlock cryptic or silent pathways.  Instead of trying to manipulate the environment, a laborious and time consuming technique, the team led by Prof Huimin Zhao directed their efforts on the regulation of gene expression using synthetic biology tools. Using a DNA assembler they were able to construct different versions of pathways, each with a specific gene deletion in order to identify which protein does what. Adding promoters between each cryptic gene cluster in a soil bacterium allowed them to control the expression of the genes, and increase it. The team discovered three previously unknown compounds with useful biomedical applications.

23andMe Stops Providing Genetic Health Reports

On Thursday, the personal genetics company 23andMe, announced that it would only provide raw genetic data and ancestry reports, and stop health reports for new customers. It offers a full refund for customers that purchased their kit after the 22nd of November and has stopped updating the health reports for the existing customers. This is two weeks after the US Food and Drug Administration asked the company to stop marketing its genetic kits, for regulation issues and the possible problem associated with people taking action based on the results provided by the kits (see our last newsletter). While there is no denying that the case has not been handled the best way by 23andMe, it has highlighted the need for an update on regulations, which were last revised in 1976 before genetic tests even existed.


The Tuck foundation held a successful last symposium celebrating 8 years supporting biofuel and synthetic biology research.

The Enerbio fund was created by the Tuck Foundation to finance research projects geared primarily toward identifying and fostering the emergence of innovative, competitive methods for using biomass for biofuels and bioproducts. The fund was financed by industrial partners Axens, Diester Industrie (Sofiproteol), Renault and Total and has been instrumental in the development of Synthetic Biology research projects exploring the use of biomass for biofuel production all around Europe as early as 2005.

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