Of Impossibles and Whoppers: Notes from the Planet Synthetica

June 3, 2019 |

There’s been a stream of good news and bad news on the “made in a lab” front in recent weeks.

First, the amazing news that Impossible Foods raised a $300 million in its Series E round was led by existing investors Temasek and Horizons Ventures. The fifth equity funding round since Impossible Foods was launched in 2011 is intended to accelerate the company’s rapid scaleup — including accelerated hiring and capacity expansion at the company’s plant in Oakland, Calif. In total, the industry-leading food-tech startup has raised more than $750 million.

Series E round includes individual investors including: Jay Brown, Kirk Cousins, Paul George, JAY-Z, Trevor Noah, Alexis Ohanian, Kal Penn, Katy Perry, Questlove, Ruby Rose, Phil Rosenthal, Jaden Smith, Serena Williams, will.i.am and Zedd.

Just recently, Burger King debuted the Impossible Whopper in a regional test in St. Louis. The 59-unit regional test of the Impossible Whopper at Burger King restaurants in St. Louis has gone exceedingly well, according to Impossible — the Miami-based restaurant chain intends to bring the Impossible Whopper to all 7,200 U.S. restaurants at the end of 2019, we are told.

And, what’s synthetic about this company? Certainly not the money or the passion. Founded in 2011 by Stanford biochemistry professor and former pediatrician Dr. Patrick O. Brown, Impossible Foods makes meat from plants — with a much smaller environmental footprint than meat from animals, the company touts. The company’s goal is to eliminate the need for animals in the food chain by 2035. The company uses modern science and technology to create wholesome food, restore natural ecosystems, and feed a growing population sustainably. Read Brown’s blog to learn more about the company’s mission.

Meanwhile, also in good news, BBC is reporting that “UK scientists have created an artificial version of the stomach bug E. coli that is based on an entirely synthetic form of DNA.”

They call their creation Syn61, which won’t win any prizes for memorability, but all the same, they’re getting kudos across the globe. Our favorite Boston synthetic biologist George Church found time to take a break from re-creating mastodons and founding companies or whatever he might up to today, and told BBC this was “a major breakthough”.

It’s a replacement of the entire working DNA of E.coli, and what can you do with that? For one, we can start to include stuff in molecules that nature has never had. For example, think silicon platforms and circuitry inside cells — living chips, as it were.

More on this one here.

Meanwhile in the world of circuitry, another team has figured out a way to transit information using short-pulse light beams instead of electricity — so, a stream of photons instead of a stream of electrons. Immediately, think of cooler systems, which means no longer contemplating buying an advanced, futuristic server farm underneath Antarctica to keep it cool enough to operate. Also, this would impact energy use, and hugely impact the space between circuits and possibly empower some more miniaturization of circuitry — heat control has become a huge problem, maybe even the Mother of All Problems, in maintaining Moore’s Law in development pace.

Today’s data center servers consume between 2 to 5% of global electricity consumption, producing heat which in turn requires more power to cool the servers. The problem is so acute that Microsoft has even submerged hundreds of its data center services in the ocean in an effort to keep them cool and cut costs.

Most data are encoded as binary information (0 or 1 respectively) through the orientation of tiny magnets, called spins, in magnetic hard-drives. The magnetic read/write head is used to set or retrieve information using electrical currents which dissipate huge amounts of energy.

Now an international team publishing in Nature has solved the problem by replacing electricity with extremely short pulses of light – the duration of one trillionth of a second – concentrated by special antennas on top of a magnet. This new method is superfast but so energy efficient that the temperature of the magnet does not increase at all.

Now to the bad news, and it is about processed food.

People eating ultra-processed foods ate more calories and gained more weight than when they ate a minimally processed diet, according to results from a National Institutes of Health study.

The difference occurred even though meals provided to the volunteers in both the ultra-processed and minimally processed diets had the same number of calories and macronutrients.

A small-scale study of 20 adult volunteers, conducted by researchers at the NIH’s National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), is the first randomized controlled trial examining the effects of ultra-processed foods as defined by the NOVA classification system. This system considers foods “ultra-processed” if they have ingredients predominantly found in industrial food manufacturing, such as hydrogenated oils, high-fructose corn syrup, flavoring agents, and emulsifiers.

This is the first study to demonstrate causality — that ultra-processed foods cause people to eat too many calories and gain weight.

The results were published in Cell Metabolism and you can read it here.

The Bottom Line

Many get nervous about all the artificiality and synthetic life being created in labs — mimicry, whether it is new cells that mimic life, or modification of organisms, or the creation of new ultra-processed foods. We seem to be pretty happy so far about eating meats made from plants in a synthetic way. It’s an open question how long that goodwill can be maintained — and whether eating these new advanced foods will trigger some of the same gut reactions that apparently ultra-processed foods are — or not. That alone could be a game -changer — as the antidote for ultra-processed foods that make you gain weight would be ultra-processed foods that make you lose weight. That would be a breakthrough, and perhaps is the positive flip side of the NIH study.

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