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This Synthetic Bio Company Is Hacking Microbes to Build the Smells of the Future

Ginkgo Bioworks is re-wilding our noses with raw biological smells by drilling right down into an organism’s DNA.

We may think of our fragrances today as delicate chemical concoctions, divided from the erratic smells of the world by the glass sheaths of over-contemplated bottles. But the first fragrances were not only chemical, they were biological, and made directly from things in the wild and smelly environment, like animal excretions.

Now, a synthetic biology foundry in Boston, Ginkgo Bioworks, which has dubbed itself as "the organism company," is re-wilding our noses with raw biological smells by drilling right down into an organism's DNA.

In a room in Times Square packed with people who want to #growthefuture by turning the biology of microbes into assembly lines that manufacture useful things for us, the idea that we can, and should, biofabricate whatever we want from "living factories" was buzzing at last months Biofabricate 2015 conference. This is where Christina Agapakis, the creative director of Ginkgo Bioworks, took the stage to explain how a rose is not really a regular rose any longer with Ginko's futuristic perfuming methods.

The company is never going to bottle the exact natural rose smell you know, and it doesn't want to. Instead, Ginkgo Bioworks wants to extend it towards new varieties of rose smells that its scientists can build up, bit by bit, with chunks of DNA.

Would you welcome even more microbes into your morning routine?

How does it work? Well, scientists already know a lot about the metabolic pathways of different organisms that lead to the individual compounds they make, like the aromatic molecules of a rose's smell. Equipped with this knowledge, scientists at Ginkgo take the smell they're interested in—rose aroma—then look at rose metabolism to see what enzymatic steps a rose uses to turn sugar, its raw input, into its coveted odor. Agapakis describes it as "an enzyme-discovery process."

At the same time, they look across evolutionary space, into the metabolism of a much wider variety of organisms that produce the same compounds in the odor (often yeast, fungi and plants), then make a list of all the genes that code for them. By knowing the various routes that evolutionary history has taken to make these compounds in different organisms, they have more tools to work with in order to make increasingly psychedelic smell options than a straight-up rose could produce.

Once Ginkgo's bioengineers have their list of genes, they synthesize them all in the lab, and insert them into a yeast cell. The yeast then gets thrown into a vat, where it multiplies, and brews the fragrance.

Ginkgo has partnered with French perfumer Robertet to produce the final product. The company doesn't intend for people to spray engineered yeast directly on their skin. The smell gets extracted from the yeast before it is bottled with a chemical purification process, so the fragrance doesn't raise the possibility of releasing genetically modified organisms into your bedroom.

The demo floor at the 2015 Biofabricate conference, where Agapakis spoke. Image: Jason Koebler

"But our vision in the future is that we are the organism company, so there will be a future where organisms are the product," Agapakis said. Would you welcome even more microbes into your morning routine?

In a possible future where more and more fragrances and other products we love are manufactured by the tiny bodies of microbes we design, what happens to the old ways of producing those things, and specifically, the people behind them?

For example, in Tunisia right now, there is a Berber fragrance shop owner who has been harvesting rose oil for decades just as his dad taught him to. I've received audio recordings from his shop by Jim Thomas of ETC Group, a civil society organization that is concerned with how synthetic biology may threaten the lifestyles of traditional producers like this shop owner. How might a growing biofabrication movement impact him?

Companies that spoke at the Biofabricate meeting stress that they are creating something new with biology, and not an identical natural product, so do not stand to completely supplant old methods, and rather create a complement to them. But there are ethics to consider on both sides of the fabrication process: ethics of where the original compounds are sourced, and what impact distribution models might make down the line in the global market beyond the high-tech grounds where they are made.

It's not likely that vats of growing biological goods will ever make the human labour behind them obsolete, but perhaps it may hide it a little more. As artist Oron Catts said later in the day from the stage, humans still matter greatly in biofabrication processes, because at the end of the day, "life needs care."