Taxa, a biotech startup in Silicon Valley, has debuted a new product: Orbella, a line of three fragrant mosses genetically engineered to give off aromas of patchouli, linalool (floral, clean, and fresh), and geraniol (rose-like). The project is a textbook example of synthetic biology, or synbio, which is the application of engineering techniques to the building blocks of life. (Basically, creating new life forms.)
Orbella was produced through a collaboration between Taxa and Dr. Henrik Simonsen, a professor at the University of Copenhagen whose work focuses on using photosynthesis (as opposed to conventional chemical synthesis) to biosynthesize small molecules.
The scented mosses were created by taking genes associated with a certain scent and splicing them into the moss genes. The actual process sounds like a near-future sci fi plot point: the scientists design the spliced gene online, use a gene gun (real name) to insert the genes into the moss cells, and then grow the GMO moss in liquid form.
If you’ve heard of Taxa before, it’s probably because of their intensely controversial Glowing Plant Kickstarter project. Back in 2013, Taxa successfully funded the Glowing Plant project with the promise of delivering a genetically modified plant that’d glow in the dark. Problem is, the biotech required to actually produce the glowing plant proved to be beyond Taxa’s reach, and their actual product hardly emitted any light.
Regardless of the success (or not) of the Glowing Plant itself, the Kickstarter project faced heavy blowback amid concerns of GMO products hitting consumer markets without any regulatory oversight. Prompted by the Glowing Plant controversy, Kickstarter banned GMO projects shortly thereafter. Taxa then pivoted to fragrant moss, which is much easier to engineer due to its simpler genome and shorter life-cycle, which allows scientists to run experiments more quickly.
Why It’s Hot: Orbella is a step forward in the consumer-facing biotech sphere. Taxa’s hope is that the product helps to positively change people’s perception of GMOs and demonstrate the varied uses of the emerging technology. Taxa is also funded primarily through crowd funding, and they’re an independent biotech company – their work is proving that GMO products don’t have to be the sole purview of massive conglomerates.
More significantly, though, the synbio field is truly the future of biotech, and represents mind-bogglingly vast possibilities for humanity – along with equally vast moral and ethical quandaries. How much modification is too much? Where’s the line between a fun, harmless GMO like scented moss and something more troubling? And who should be allowed to produce, and sell, and purchase GMO products in the first place?