BOSTON—Out on an old Navy dry dock, a biotech company called Ginkgo Bioworks is growing genetically modified organisms by the billions, and it would very much like to tell you about them.
“I think people should love GMOs,” Gingko’s CEO and cofounder, Jason Kelly, told me. “We’re super proud of them.”
It helps the message, perhaps, that Ginkgo is not a big ag corporation shrouded in secrecy, but a small company founded by a band of exuberant nerds from MIT. Ginkgo reprograms single-celled organisms like yeast and bacteria into mini factories churning out useful molecules for food, perfumes, and industrial applications. For fun, its scientists also brew beer with their genetically modified yeast. The lunchroom is stacked with multiple versions of Settlers of Catan. And it’s thrown open the doors open to journalists curious for a whiff of fragrances made via genetic engineering.
Ginkgo publicly waded into the GMO-labeling debate in 2016, when Kelly published a New York Times op-ed titled, “I Run a GMO Company—and I Support GMO Labeling.” He began by talking about his diabetic father, whose insulin came from genetically modified bacteria. The op-ed was typical of how Gingko—and a wave of other companies using GMOs in novel ways—are trying to reset the conversation around biotechnology: by foregrounding the benefits to consumers and advocating for transparency.
Kelly and many other biotech entrepreneurs I’ve spoken to take their lessons from the backlash to Monsanto. Monsanto’s mistake, in their telling, was focusing on genetic modifications that benefited farmers applying pesticides and herbicides but which seemed confusing to the average mom or dad at the grocery store. That made it easy for activists to tap into people’s fear of big corporations doing nefarious things. But what if you only made GMOs that were fun, cool, and socially conscious—like vegetarian burgers or cow-free leather or spider-silk ties? “It's a very different conversation about genetic engineering when it's a tie,” says Kelly.
That trend makes one of Ginkgo’s biggest deals yet, announced in September, a particularly intriguing one. Ginkgo has partnered with Bayer to launch a new company focused on genetically engineering microbes to make nitrogen fertilizer. The pitch has an explicit environmental angle: Making nitrogen fertilizer currently requires vast amounts of fossil fuels. Bayer is also, of course, the large German conglomerate that is in the middle of merging with Monsanto.
Can people love even these GMOs?
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When it comes to science, the Ginkgo team’s credentials are unimpeachable. Kelly earned his Ph.D. at MIT focusing on synthetic biology, a field that sees DNA as a readable, writable code for life, one that can be manipulated in a lab. Three of his Ginkgo cofounders were classmates at MIT: Reshma Shetty, Barry Canton, and Austin Che. The other founder was Tom Knight, a former MIT professor best known as the godfather of synthetic biology.
From the start in 2009, Ginkgo’s team knew they wanted to make it easier to tinker with the DNA in yeast and bacteria. The basic technology has been around for decades—the first human insulin made with genetic engineering came on the market in 1982—but getting it to work is still kind of a crapshoot. Biology is complicated. The Ginkgo team envisioned a world where they could “print” hundreds of variation of a gene, splice them inside microbes, and start to learn what works best.
What they had not quite figured out was what to do with those tools. Ginkgo bounced around for a while, picking up a grant here from DOE to engineer E. coli for biofuels and a grant there from DARPA to work on antibiotic resistance. Then, they started talking to companies that wanted more reliable sources of fragrances like rose oil. “Honestly, I didn’t know the fragrance industry existed in grad school,” says Kelly. He’d heard of the perfume industry, of course, but what he didn’t know was that behind it are a network of largely anonymous companies that create the basic fragrances later blended into perfumes.
It was good fit though. For one, fragrances like rose oil command a much higher price than, say, a commodity like fuels. And Ginkgo didn’t have to compete with a fragrance company’s internal biotech team because nobody in that industry had any experience genetically modifying yeast.
It made for good PR, too. Unlike pharmaceutical chemicals or industrial enzymes or fertilizers, fragrances had a wow factor. They are almost tangible. Definitely smellable. Journalists—me included—came to Ginkgo’s offices to sniff for themselves. And the first time you unscrew a frozen tube expecting something bready and yeasty but get a whiff of floral, it is a little bit magical. Ginkgo’s scientists spoke of resurrecting the smell of Ice Age flowers through genetic engineering.
Other companies are also tapping into this romantic vision of biotechnology. Modern Meadow, which is making leather without cows, unveiled its first product—a “reimagined” leather T-shirt—at the Museum of Modern Art. In March, Bolt Threads released a a limited edition $314 tie made of spider silk from GMO yeast. It’s also partnered with the designer Stella McCartney, who is creating pants and bodysuits out of spider silk.
Yet other companies have pitched themselves as a solution to the ills of industrial farming. “You pick your favorite animal food product right now and there’s two or three start-ups working on it,” says Kelly. The most famous example may be Impossible Foods’ plant-based burger that “bleeds”—an effect achieved with heme, a molecule that the company makes in GMO yeast.
This focus on the consumer may be working to refurbish GMOs’ image—at least in some circles. “There’s a new openness to using genetic-engineering technology that hasn’t been there. Maybe this started five years ago,” says Ryan Bethencourt, who cofounded and until recently ran IndieBio, an accelerator for biotech start-ups. But it’s certainly captivated investors in Silicon Valley, which is keen on the idea of DNA as the next programmable code.
Bethencourt says he tells the companies he advises to be transparent about their use of genetic engineering. But they need a story that transcends the science, too. And that’s why you have the high-fashion partnerships and appeals to animal welfare. On the other hand, leaning too hard into socially responsible messaging can engender backlash too. Though there’s no evidence the heme in its burgers is unsafe, Impossible Foods got an unflattering round of news coverage when environmental groups obtained FDA documents that painted a confusing picture about the molecule’s safety.
When I was at an industry event sponsored by Ginkgo back in 2015, I heard a lot of discomfort with using the phrase “GMO.” “I feel like in the past we’ve avoided the term GMO because it’s got so much baggage,” John Cumbers, the founder of the industry group SynBioBeta, recently told me. (He now thinks they should reclaim the term.) The debate around using the word “GMO” is a microcosm of the larger debate over how much a biotech company should talk up its scientific process versus focusing on the end product. And even back in 2015, Kelly was arguing for the science.
And it makes sense because Ginkgo does not sell consumer products. It sells scientific expertise in creating genetically modified microbes for companies to create their own products. “Ginkgo is more the engine behind products,” says Bethencourt. Its most direct competitor may be Zymergen, a Bay Area company that also optimizes yeast and bacterial strains used in industrial fermentation. (Fermentation, though commonly associated with pickles and beer, is the conversion of sugar to any substance by microbes—be it vinegar, alcohol, rose oil, or industrial enzymes.)
So by necessity, Ginkgo wants to talk about science and to rehab the image of GMOs. “I want to know why people are scared, why they don’t love GMOs,” says Christina Agapakis, Ginkgo’s creative director, who has led an unusual set of initiatives for the biotech company. She hangs out at fermentation festivals—“It’s like the hippies and Ginkgo”—and brought in an artist in residence to experiment with dying textiles with bacteria.
But as Ginkgo has grown, it has also taken on bigger clients deeper in the industrial supply chain. It’s signed deals with Kerry and Swissaustral (for enzymes used in processing food) as well as Cargill and ADM (for nutrients added to animal feed). It’s harder to tell a simple story to the consumer while entangled inside these vast supply chains.
The partnership with Bayer is interesting for that reason. On one hand, it was a big score for Ginkgo. “[Bayer] ended up choosing to work with us when Ginkgo has historically done nothing in agriculture, and the reason was the platform,” says Kelly. Because of Ginkgo’s automation and expertise in organism design, it says it can do the same work for one-fifth of the cost of the competition. “The platform is really the unique asset. We have evidence of that for the first time last year,” says Kelly. The Bayer partnership was evidence their business plan could work. Ginkgo recently opened its third “foundry”—what it calls its lab spaces—and has plans for two more.
I asked Kelly if he had any hesitation about working with Bayer—given the frequently negative associations with GMOs in industrial agriculture. He launched into an explanation of the sustainability benefits of GMOs that can “fix” nitrogen gas to make fertilizer, which in turn required an explanation of how nitrogen fertilizer is currently made with fossils fuels in the Haber-Bosch process. Stores like Walmart are feeling consumer pressure to stock more sustainable goods, he said.
“You can get a little bit of a favorable consumer perception on this stuff,” he concluded, “but it is different than the tie.” The tie is catchy, and simple. But the thing Kelly says makes Gingko’s new project consumer-friendly may be a little too complicated to get across in a sound bite.
So much of the queasiness around GMOs, Kelly added, is actually a queasiness about industrial agriculture. He described the war on GMOs as a proxy war for the actual fight over industrial agriculture. “That technology is starting to be a useful tool in the real fight [over industrial agriculture]. It’s actually going to help reduce industrial farming with things like the Impossible Burger and things we're doing with nitrogen fixing,” he says. “When that happens, you want to start using it if you want to reform the ag system.” This is, after all, why Kelly is proud of Ginkgo’s GMOs.
It’s fun to talk about $314 ties and $16 vegetarian burgers at fancy restaurants, but if new GMOs are going to truly make the world a better place, they’ll have to appeal to many more people. They’ll have to replace whole industries that feed and clothe millions. In other words, they too will have to function at an industrial scale—perhaps the actual thing that makes people uncomfortable.