Organism Designers Hack Biology to Make Smells From Scratch

Carla Nunziata via Wikimedia Commons // CC-BY-SA 3.0
Carla Nunziata via Wikimedia Commons // CC-BY-SA 3.0 / Carla Nunziata via Wikimedia Commons // CC-BY-SA 3.0

We may not have jetpacks just yet, but the future is definitely upon us. The genetic engineers (or “organism designers,” as they prefer to be called) at Ginkgo Bioworks are hard at work brewing up new smells.

The company started back in 2008, right around the time that DNA sequencing technology became more affordable. Scientists were sequencing genomes right and left, which created a wonderful library of genetic information. Biologist Tom Knight saw an opportunity, and teamed up with recent MIT graduates Reshma Shetty, Jason Kelly, Barry Canton, and Austin Che to form Ginkgo Bioworks. Their goal, Ginkgo’s creative director Christina Agapakis told Smithsonian, was “to make biology easier to engineer, and then to look at what that means for industry and technology.”

Ginkgo opened what they call a “foundry”—a laboratory where organism designers can pry apart yeast DNA and insert new and useful traits. “It’s like a rapid prototyping factory,” Agapakis said. “We can run many variants of different pathways and see what works in the right combination.”

Exactly what these organisms produce depends on what their clients are looking for. Some projects involve creating organisms that can capture carbon. Others are aimed at growing better probiotics. At the moment, Ginkgo is focused on making new smells. There’s a big market for synthetic scents and flavors, and innovation is at a premium.

Currently, Ginkgo is working to create a strain of yeast that smells like roses. The foundry was commissioned by French perfumer Robertet to recreate the scent of one particular rose that grows only in Turkey and Bulgaria. The roses must be picked and processed by hand, which is time-consuming and expensive. A yeast that smells like the finicky roses could be a welcome alternative.

“Yeast is awesome,” Agapakis told Smithsonian, “because we as humans are really good at fermenting yeast.” She notes that our species' predilection for beer has yielded all sorts of developments in yeast technology. In fact, Emily Greenhagen, the company’s head of fermentation, co-owns a brewery nearby with her husband. 

Another foundry is in the works, with plans to open up shop in spring or summer of next year. “The foundry is constantly iterating,” Agapakis told Smithsonian. “We’re always thinking about organism design and how to run it more efficiently.”

[h/t Smithsonian]