What is the terroir of synthetic yeast?

I recently published* an article with the unlikely-sounding title “What is the terroir of synthetic yeast?” The piece is open-access for anyone to read at Environmental Humanities, though it relies on a fair bit of jargon-heavy social science theory. For that reason (and plenty of others), many people might not get past the title. And reading only the title, you might well think that I’m talking about wine made with synthetic yeast and its special bouquet de la laboratoire.

But you cannot buy wine made with synthetic yeast. Much wine is made with commercial wine yeast, genetically improved through careful breeding for desirable traits through what is fundamentally a centuries-old process of controlled mating and selecting progeny with desirable characteristics for further mating. In the United States, Canada, and Moldova, you may also find wine made with one of two genetically modified yeast strains (GM yeasts are illegal for winemaking purposes elsewhere), constructed by molecularly inserting a small number genes into yeast genomes using techniques only a few decades old.

The creature known as synthetic yeast, in contrast, is—or, rather, will be—the result of making comprehensive changes across an entire yeast genome, building whole chromosomes following the plans for that comprehensive redesign (find more detail here). “Synthetic yeast” will be the product of assembling those redesigned chromosomes in a single little yeast body. Six of sixteen chromosomes are complete with the remainder well on their way to completion.

Even then, however, synthetic yeast-fermented wine won’t be hitting the market anytime soon. An in-progress version of synthetic yeast engineered to produce raspberry ketone has been used to make raspberry-scented chardonnay, but that experimental wine can’t legally leave the lab. So what does its terroir have to do with anything?

Terroir, roughly “sense of place,” is about connection. (Terroir is also used as a euphemism for “this is schmancy wine and you should buy it,” and occasionally as a way of politely saying “I think this wine tastes like dirt,” but I’m not interested in those uses here.) Terroir—the perceived ability to taste that a wine is from a particular winemaking locale—is about using the experience of drinking wine as a means of creating connection between you, the drinker, and a place, a tradition, and a sense of unique identity.

Synthetic biology and other genetic biotechnologies applied to making food are, in contrast, about calories and nutrition or about technical improvement (and, at a different level, about making money for biotech companies). Synthetic foods are placeless; they come from noplace** and can, at least in theory, go anyplace. Some future synthetic yeast might make “better” wine, if “better” is defined in terms of technical perfection rather than uniqueness of expression and connection to tradition. Engineered yeast and algae might in some future world possibly deliver complete proteins to hungry people, but might also encourage policy-makers to think of food only in terms of delivering calories and forget or dismiss its many more-than-caloric roles.

What is the terroir of synthetic yeast?” isn’t necessarily a question with an answer. But it is, I hope, a way of enjoining that as we build the future, we build a place in which food is still about building connections, and that we resist employing technologies in ways that estrange us as eating and drinking bodies from the places in which we live.

*Published recently, but written well over a year ago, as academic publishing in the social sciences and humanities often goes. Speed is important in the natural sciences, where multiple groups may be competing for precedence and where researchers tend to work in large groups publishing many papers so that it’s important to have finished results published quickly so that later papers can cite them. In social sciences and especially in humanities, both of those conditions are less likely to be true: researchers are rarely in direct competition (for reasons too complex to detail here) and people tend to work individually and to gestate new ideas at a slower pace. I originally wrote and presented this paper at the 2016 Symposium for Australian Gastronomy, a beautiful and enthusiastic gathering of researchers, producers, and splendid Australian comestibles.

**Of course, they have to come from somewhere, even if that somewhere is carefully de-emphasized. Terroir, as I mention in the article, is also a reminder that peculiar local conditions of production matter to the products of science and technology, too, not just for artisan agriculture.