Some of you might remember the Kickstarter funded synthetic biology project Glowing plants (which I had also mentioned in an older post): in the spring of 2013 Antony Evans (CEO and founder of Glowing plants, renamed TAXA later) and his team had successfully raised just under half a million dollars to engineer a plant with genes from a marine bacterium so that it could glow in the dark, envisioning an environmentally friendly and sustainable substitute for light bulbs.
By his own admission, when Antony Evans started the project, he did not realize that engineering plants to glow would have been a lot harder than he originally thought – the scientists he was working with made it sound so easy. The company ended up needing more funding than envisaged, and while the project is still ongoing, we will need to wait a little longer for our houses to be lightened up by trees. However, Antony has now a new story to share with us: his new product, Orbella fragrant moss, has recently been launched on the market and it represents an enchanting example of a very successful synthetic biology (synbio) engineering story.
A little bit of history and a new product: fragrant moss.
When Antony realised that more funding was needed to carry the Glowing plants project to completion, he also envisaged the possibility of expanding the project further, with the aim of building a more general and versatile platform for the biotech-engineering of plants ‘that would allow us to make engineering plants cheaper, faster and better: the TAXA platform.’ Antony also explains: ‘We wanted to focus on things that ultimately will be sold to consumers, a sector that we believe will greatly expand in the future. Shortly after [receiving the funding] we started working on the fragrant moss.’
When asked where he found his inspiration for the moss, Antony says: ’There are a gazillion ideas out there of things that could potentially be done with synbio, suffice it to look at science fiction books, or even better at [the] biopunk [subgenre of science fiction]. The glowing plants, for instance, were anticipated in a book by Margaret Atwood (in her book the glowing roses were referred to as Lumiroses). Also iGEM (international genetically engineered machine) competition is a very fertile ground for creativity and imagination that allows to imagine where the field will go. [For what concerns the fragrant moss] the idea originated from a discussion I had during a conference in which we discussed about the eco-implication of synthetic biology, but it was only after nine months or so that, while attending another conference, I met some researchers from Copenhagen that had actually engineered a moss to produce molecules for the perfume industry.’ The encounter reignited interest on the subject, and from further collaboration with the same research group in Copenhagen (led by Dr. Henrik Simonsen), the fragrant moss was born.
Fragrant moss: characteristics and peculiarities
‘You can smell it, but it is not super strong, yet. It works in a small room, a small bathroom, for instance. We have three flavours: patchouli, linalool and geranium. Geranium has mosquito repellent properties, too.’ Ask me, and I will tell you that this sounds very much as if science fiction is finally here. But my awe does not stop here. As Antony explains, there are several advantages to the smelly moss. ‘The first is that we don’t need to use a container.’ With the traditional fragrance product that you can buy in the supermarket, Antony points out that you have to dissolve the product in a petroleum based solvent (which is known in the industry as a container) and that solvent evaporates together with the fragrance in the room. This is true also for candles: the matrix burns and gets into the air. ‘You end up releasing those petrochemicals into the air. With our product, the fragrance is made in the home with CO2, sunlight and water. You are not putting any of those container molecules in the air. Also, since it is a living plant, actually it does filter the air a little bit. Ultimately, this is going to be significantly cleaner and purer for the air compared to traditional products.’
The Orbella fragrant moss is totally eco-friendly, as it is made from completely biodegradable material. ‘Even the packaging is grown from mycelium,’ Antony says. ‘[For the packaging production] we partnered with Ecovative. We had known them for a while, but it is through Biofabricate (Wanna know about Biofabricate? I spoke about them in a previous post! Once again, collaboration in synbio is key!) that we really connected and we realised that we could use their packaging. We are a big fan of what they are doing. They take a cellulosic product, they put it in a mould and then they add the mushroom [mycelium] and three weeks later we have the box in which we can ship the material. The package is 100% biodegradable and has zero carbon footprint.’ As Antony reminds us, this is all in line with working towards a new era for the world, which will be represented by a circular economy: ‘Biotech is the only truly sustainable technology out there. A moss cell is a solar power factory. Now we can control what the factory does, and this is the way we are getting to a sustainable economy. We see our moss as a kind of symbol of this future economy. We hope that people see this and realize that there are loads of creative, sustainable things that we can do with biotech.’
Synbio and the lay community: a first example of direct interaction
When synbio goes to the public, the first question that comes to mind is: how do people react to the commercialisation of a new GMO product? Antony observed mixed reactions: ‘everyone is very opinionated, but it’s a mix between enthusiasm and excitement and some of the more senior people have concern because they recognize that this is a very politicized field. They want to control the message.’
I was also very interested in hearing how the same public reacted to the delay in the deployment of the first product: Glowing plants. As mentioned, the project was funded through a crowdfunded campaign meaning that people had paid for their product in advance when it was still in its planning phase. Unfortunately, the project was hit by major delays, and while if you are a scientist you know that this is the norm, customers might not understand that biology is, in fact, hard to engineer and it might require more time than originally expected.
In response to this, Antony says:’ I myself did not know how hard this was. I went to the Singularity University and to many conferences, and I still did not realize how hard it was. My experience on this is parallel to the experience of our customers. To manage the setback, we were consistent in giving out updates. We kept the customers up to date with our struggles through our blog. We put a lot of works in the updates and I think we ended up creating a sort of documentary [of the Glowing plants' story]. Very few people got really frustrated (about 10 people out of 9000 complained). I guess that the majority of them have found value in the journey. The biggest value that we provided so far is a testament to the fact that to produce glowing plants might be possible but it is very hard. We went from wild enthusiasm to tempered realism. Psychologically it is very challenging. My co-workers joke about the fact that this experience has put me through the emotional rollercoaster that you experience during a Ph.D. This is the reality of bioengineering. You are taking on a multi-year commitment.’
Antony shared with me his vision for the synthetic biology field: ‘To paraphrase Bill Gates’ vision of ‘a computer on every desk and in every home’, I’d say that we want to see GMOs for every home. Ultimately we’ll go past that: multiple engineered organism for every house.’
While for this future we will have to wait a little longer, Orbella fragrant moss has just launched a couple of weeks ago, and it is now available to purchase. The only drawback? For the moment they are only shipping to the US because of the current regulations, and while many of you might be able to buy it right away, I will have to wait until they sell it in Canada: synbio regulatory policies can make you terribly sad at times!
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Notes from the author - source for the pictures in this article: https://orbellamoss.com/pages/about-orbella-fragrant-moss / This article was first published in a slightly more technical version on the PLOSSynbio blog (http://blogs.plos.org/synbio/2017/08/10/fragrant-moss-a-product-of-synbio-and-a-symbol-for-the-future/)