Dr. Hennie J. J. van Vuuren

From 2011.igem.org

Team: British Columbia - 2011.igem.org

Interview with Dr. Hennie J. J. van Vuuren

Professor and Eagles Chair in Food Biotechnology, Wine Research Centre Director, Associate Member, Michael Smith Laboratories (Dr. van Vuuren's Bio)

As Scientists, be open and provide clarification when needed.

Dr. van Vuuren has been involved in genetically modified yeast long before Monsanto first released their plants. His interest stems from his love for wine. He gets severe headaches when drinking wine due to the bio-amines naturally present in wine. Dr. van Vuuren has engineered yeast to express a bacterial enzyme which facilitates the removal of bio-amines. This yeast has been commercialized and is used by wineries to produce wine with reduced bio-amine levels.

1. Do you think synthetic organisms should be released into the wild?

Specifically for yeast, yes, if they have been well studied and if they don’t compete with other organisms in nature and don’t have negative affects on the ecosystem. Yeast are not toxic to humans and are quite ubiquitous but it is important to consider what impact it could have on the environment.

2. What standards would you recommend for their release?

(1) It took 15 years of research before my synthetic yeast was commercialized. There needs to be extensive write-ups to be clear about what was created and how it works. It needs to be stated clearly what the problem is, what approach will be taken, and what tests will be performed to ensure quality control. In my case, the transcriptome, proteome and metabolomics of the synthetic yeast were thoroughly investigated.

(2) It is essential to know how the synthetic organism will interact with the environment and its organisms. For example, yeast is able to live in anaerobic and acidic environments, making it possible for it to be passed along the food chain.

(3) It is important to know what specific requirements the synthetic organism has for survival. For instance, yeast usually cannot survive the cold winter and will need to be re-dispersed every spring.

3. What challenges are there in terms of attaining public acceptance?

There is always a huge challenge. Some people are against it in principle. It is still controversial but it could be really beneficial to consumers and the environment and then people will accept it.

I have had interactions with anti-GMO lobbyists but if you are open and communicate to the public what you have done and why you have done it, once they can see that they can benefit and that it is well studied and tested, there is often a change in mindset and they become more welcoming of the synthetic product.

4. What future directions do you see for synthetic biology?

We have the technology for creating and analysing synthetic biology. There is a huge future if the consumers can benefit from it. Consumers are easy to please especially if there are health benefits and if it is well studied and controlled. Again, open communication is key.

5. Do you think we should be rewriting the code of life?

It isn’t about rewriting the code of life. It is natural for cells to mutate. However, we have the technology to introduce very accurate modifications and selection for what we want. Bringing in foreign DNA is in a sense rewriting the code of life. Nonetheless, if there are benefits, it is worthwhile. Constant check-ups are also key. But for some, this is a philosophical, moral and ethical issue.