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SynFoNI: Strengthening synthetic biology in food, nutraceutical production

BY Alisa King

Over the years, the democratization of synthetic biology for the production of food has led to products like the Impossible burger, a burger impostor that uses plant tissues instead of meat. Despite this, food companies remain hesitant to utilize synthetic biology due to concerns with genetically modified foods.

With the emergence of genome editing techniques, such as CRISPR-Cas, Professor of Food Science and Human Nutrition (FSHN) Yong-Su Jin (BSD/CABBI/MME) believes both the consumer and manufacturer can benefit from synthetic biology with minimal risks. This idea was used to propose the Synthetic Biology for Food and Nutrition Innovation (SynFoNI) program for which Jin currently serves as Director along with Deputy Director and Professor of FSHN Mike Miller (IGOH/MME).

“Instead of changing many things which are mostly undesirable in the cell, we can use molecular surgery to change desirable base pairs with CRISPR-Cas,” said Jin. “If we can do that, we can reduce the risks and create consumer products in a highly safe manner.”

SynFoNI was chosen along with 17 other programs to receive funding over a three year period for the Investment for Growth program through the Office of the Provost, which aims to invest in programs that lead to financial sustainability and revenue generation. First submitted as an Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) proposal, SynFoNI was forwarded to the campus level after passing internal competition.

“The clear goal of SynFoNI is to make ACES and Illinois a world leader in applying synthetic biology to food and nutritional problems,” said Jin. “We are going to leverage excellent research facilities and programs here, which will provide the infrastructure to facilitate collaborations between the industry and the scientists on campus.”

SynFoNI plans to build a network that integrates the IGB, the Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory, the FSHN program, ACES farms, and numerous food companies in the Chicago area, with plans to create a Food Innovation Center at the Discovery Partners Institute in Chicago.

The initiative will also provide a new professional science master’s (PSM) program in synthetic biology for food and nutrition, in addition to a new minor in fermentation science at ACES. Students in the PSM program will also get a unique training opportunity by learning about and using The Illinois Biological Foundry for Advanced Biomanufacturing (iBioFAB) machine for their research projects.

“We view the workforce as a critical limiting factor in synthetic biology,” said Jin. “In this program, we will teach students the technology and skillset required for applying synthetic biology towards food and nutritional problems.”

In addition to collaborative research, SynFoNI also proposes to host workshops, plan outreach activities, and invite companies for industrial affiliated programs. Workshops will focus on teaching students the necessary skillsets and educating CEOs of food companies about expected risks and benefits of synthetic biology while outreach activities will be geared towards the general public. The primary goal of these activities is to increase the interactions between the food science and nutritional science leaders with students and faculty members at Illinois.

“The social reception is a limiting factor and so one of the goals is to research how to aid the general public when using these food products,” said Jin. “SynFoNI is a great way to approach the general public with genomics in synthetic biology.”

Jin believes that now is the time of a new revolution where genome editing technology replaces genetically modified foods. With SynFoNI in place, the strengthening of the Illinois Food and Agricultural industry research and training will take synthetic biology in food production to the next level.

“I am really grateful for the support from the IGB and opportunities to collaborate with top notch scientists,” said Jin. “I would like to evolve this relationship by bringing more external industry people to the IGB. SynFoNI will be a good testbed for interactions with the industry and a great way to close the gap between the IGB and commercialization.”

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