Team:UC Davis/Syn

Cyantific: UC Davis iGEM 2016

Seeing Blue: Scenarios for SYNENERGENE

Key Points:

We were honored to be selected for a SYNENERGENE collaboration, and are excited to present our application and techno-moral scenarios.

  • Our Application Scenario conceptualizes a range of outcomes, positive and negative, and allows us to evaluate the social utility of our project and the steps that can be taken to increase the social utility.
  • Our Techno-Moral Scenario is a narrative project embodying a set of cultural values and articulating the essential questions that arise from our dye regarding the ethical obligations of food labeling and the conflicting standards of what information about what you eat is required for a good life and what costs must scientists and food companies bear to attend to standards that these groups feel are arbitrary.

Application Scenarios:

Cyantific is a biosimilar protein—a transgenic bacterium producing a protein that exists in nature but not within this organism. This challenges the limits of current food labeling regulations and food labeling responsibility, which only offer “natural” or “artificial” descriptors. Neither of these labels accurately describe the process which creates this dye. Due to the intimate connection between individuals and their choices with their food, our team has sought to be attentive to the concerns of various stakeholders in implementing safe-by-design practices and upholding high standards of moral responsibility in interactions with publics. In the following scenarios, we will consider different ways our dye can be implemented. Food dyes are put into all sorts of foods—not just visibly processed foods like candies but also canned vegetables and more. The dye could hit market as early as 2020, and the effects we anticipate would be felt by 2025 when full market penetration occurs.

What Would It Look Like? Who Would Eat It?

Our first dye is designed to replace Blue #1, also known as Brilliant Blue. Many large food companies, such as MARS, have pledged to eliminate artificial colors from their products for humans.[1] This trend is in response to significant consumer concern that exposure to some artificial dyes currently on the market can lead to disabilities in children,[2] a fear that stems from a long history of poisonous and otherwise harmful food dyes and links to consumer distrust.[3] From early design conversations with a scientist from the MARS Co., we learned that Blue #1 was the hardest dye to find a natural replacement for. So far, MARS and other companies have been lobbying international regulatory agencies to recognize Spirulina extract as an acceptable natural dye. For example in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has listed Spirulina extract as a natural food dye.[4] During this conversation with a MARS scientist it was revealed that Spirulina is too light a blue to meet the consumer’s expectations. Because of the precision afforded by synthetic biology, we are hoping to have our dye’s peak absorbance to be calibrated to exactly 630 nanometer wavelength in order to visually resemble the artificial counterpart and fill the niche without disrupting consumer anticipation.[5] With Cyantific there will be a viable alternative to chemically synthesized FCF Blue #1 (Brilliant Blue), whether for production or consumption enabling the food industry to make the switch to all natural colorants.. For more colors, other CBCR proteins will be produced from our seminal research.

How Would It Be Regulated?

In the year 2020, the food industry adopted our Cyantific blue food pigment into candy and advertised as “all natural” food. In the U.S. especially, there were no regulatory requirements to describe this as anything other than natural, as the FDA does not have a standard for “natural” when used on food labels.[6] Although the FDA made a request for comments in May 2016 to investigate what sort of product should or should not be able to bear the label,[7] the operative part of the Cyantific colorant is a protein molecularly identical to the one found in cyanobacteria, and did not fit in at all with the other products that bear the artificial coloring label, which are chemically processed derivatives of coal-tar.[8] The definition of natural flavorings/colorings encompassed many biological products, including other types of bacteria, though our pigment is derived from bacteria not yet within the human food system and therefore beyond the scope of the statue.[9] Under the 2016 law, Senate Bill 764, there is no requirement to label this product as a GMO either, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) will have begun labelling products in 2018, so the consumers believe that they are able to screen for that which contains products of genetic engineering and that which does not.[10]

From here, our application scenario branches into two possibilities: labeled as natural , as regulation in many countries would allow, or labeled more descriptively, and perhaps even going further than what would be legally required.

What If… It Is Labeled as All-Natural?

In this first branch, companies are afraid of the consumers. They fear that if the consumer understood that the food companies included Cyantific protein dyes, the fruits of genetic modification, they would not have strong profits. So they opt not to reveal that the dyes in the food come from synthetic biology. In the United States, people buy products made with our dye thinking it is “natural” and “non-GMO” since they will bear these labels.[11] However, a huge consumer backlash later occurs when news reports emerge that all of these products were made using transgenic synthetic biology techniques in a laboratory. Because the science policy in the US has worked to obscure the consumer from the processes involved in the making of food, the publics involved have not had the chance to learn more about where their food comes from, and these shady tactics have only made them more skeptical of science. Furthermore, the consumers do not know that they have been benefitting from synthetic biology in terms of health outcomes and environmental sustainability and are unable to realize that they have been benefitted from the research in this field—if there is nothing to hide, then why obscure the scientific strategies. Instead, these buyers only feel that large food manufacturers have been hiding their practice, and rather than garnering good press for synthetic biology, they feel that these dyes creation methods have been hidden because they are somehow harmful to the consumer.

Lawsuits erupt. The food companies suffer. Consumers are distrustful of everything they eat as they have no way of knowing whether the colors augmenting their foods come from natural dyes they may feel comfortable with by force of tradition, like turmeric, or ones that they feel uncomfortable with as they are new to the human food system and their usage has been concealed from them.

What Could Lead to Labeling with Specificity and Accuracy?

The term “nature-identical” was in use as early as 2016 for some countries, specifically within the European Union. By 2020 the United States still has not embraced it. A different food company takes this alternative approach, and public opinion is highly favorable. People reported trust in this company, though there are some who chose not to purchase the “nature-identical” colored candy because of fears of uncertain risks, which are endemic to emerging technologies that are not yet able to see the entire scope of possible risk. Due to substantial safety testing, most consumers trust the detailed explanations of the science provided by the company and recognize the risk to be negligible, especially when compared to older synthetic chemical dyes, which we have mentioned has research supporting the conclusion that they currently lead to adverse health effects. These companies provide evidence that such a labeling scheme would encourage investment in synthetic biology. Absent this sensible science policy, these dyes faced an uncertain landscape—but the companies took initiative and implemented proactive labeling policies that went above the requirements of the legislation.

The imagined STS scholars identify one intermediate step for the United States—adopting the EU’s policy of nature identical and providing the first alternative to the natural-artificial binary.

The STS scholars may suggest a design that looks like this and is placed on the front of the package:

On the reverse side, the packaging contains this image again, accompanied by text: “This symbol shows that the food you are about to enjoy includes a nature-identical dye. The protein creating the color exists wildly in nature. The protein in this food item is the product of a transgenic organism that is safe by design and thoroughly tested. For more information, check out” The icon bears some similarity to the symbol for whole wheat in cereal, but the icon is blue to indicate innovation[12] and while it does not look like it is part of the marketing for an item, it does not so obstruct the viewers understanding of what a product should look like that it would hamper sales. It is targeted to a literate and active shopper who inspects a product with enough care so as to shop with natural considerations in mind, and the goal is that such a shopper does not feel deceived or that the product contains insufficient information to know what the shopper is buying. Here is what it would look like on a pack of M&M’s or Trix cereal (featuring colors they could include with the Cyantific protein):

The STS scholar emphasizes that this is an intermediate step. The issue is that natural and artificial have become essentially meaningless in describing how a food comes to exist. No color added product is truly natural in the sense that it would be in such a state barring human chemical intervention, even if so-called “natural” pigments are applied. Therefore, the only way to truly modernize the system and maximize the social utility is to provide full and reasonable information in direct and easy to understand terms to the consumer. This is an ongoing process, the STS scholar notes, but it will have a global impact of improving trust between multinational food companies who rely on citizens for their existence as such and the people who rely on the food companies for sustenance. This is truly a reciprocal system, the STS scholar continues, and such voluntary disclosure can ensure that it is a relationship of trust and honesty.

What Public Health Outcomes Might the Dye Promote?

Foods that are dyed brilliant blue are often marketed to children.[13] The new food coloring is added to unhealthy snacks and promoted as better alternative to synthetic chemical dyes for because it is a protein-based dye, meaning that it can be broken down into amino acids and utilized by the body, unlike synthetic dyes. Because protein is necessary in building muscles and is a necessary component of the human diet, unlike synthetic alternatives, this dye can be marketed as healthier than the alternative dye. Since these products would not include a vast amount of the protein in order to receive the color, it is likely that the actual increase in dietary protein would be minimal. Instead, it could be added to the food and while consumption of the processed food may increase as its’ appeal to children and label of healthier may persuade people that eating it is akin to eating other sources of protein, like nuts, meat, or fish. The composition of the product is unlikely to change otherwise, and may continue to include huge amounts of added sugar, or contain preservatives that may be harmful to the long term health. In the United States, for example, the term “healthy” is regulated, though the term “healthier” can be used with more discretion. An obesity epidemic results as consumers decide that this new colored food is “healthy,” as although it may not meet FDA standards for a label of “healthy,” it may be eligible to be called “healthier.” Thus, the consumers, especially American children (to whom the dyed food is most frequently marketed) of low income (a class who differentially eat more processed foods), may eat more of this processed foods due to this misrepresentation than they would have when the ingredients were more clearly labeled as “artificial,” and more broadly understood to be unhealthful.

Alternatively, the new food coloring is added to unhealthy snacks and, although the consumer purchase patterns don’t change, there is a modest uptick in the dietetic profile of the target consumer population, due to the replacement of non-nutritive dyes with a protein-based dye. If not used strictly for altering the public’s perception of the dyed food, the protein nature of the dye could have a mildly beneficial effect on the specified market.

Current food dyes have been vetted for allergic reactions. In our interview with Arcadia Bioscience, we learned that in order to demonstrate that your novel organic compound will not be an allergen, you may dissolve the compound in pepsin, as this is the acidity of the human stomach. If it does denature, then the regulatory agency may consider it to be likely safe for human consumption under certain labelling standards. It is considered to be a red flag if it does not denature under these conditions. Unexpected allergic reactions may result from the protein dye being released into the market. Once they replaced the “artificial” alternatives entirely, anyone allergic to the protein dye will have to avoid all colored food. Since this would be a challenge, and because medicines also contain food dyes that could be replaced with the Cyantific protein and other CBCR based colors, pharmaceutical companies would jump in to develop new over-the-counter treatments / preventions for these allergies. Therefore, some consumers are taking histamine-blocking drugs in order to enjoy the colored products, now that there are few “artificial color” alternatives available. The so-called natural food additive has produced a worse outcome for some, in this scenario, than the artificial dyes. Though some people are allergic to some artificial dyes, and others must avoid currently available natural dye Carmine due to observance of Kosher or Halal dietary restrictions, due to the expansiveness of the market everyone is able to ingest some kind of colored food. Collapsing this market, though it would be in the best interest of the product we are working to create, would not be in the best interest of the planet we seek to serve.

If the Cyantific colorant was added to nutritious foods, there would be a significant improvement in quality of life for some communities. Market studies have shown that consumers in certain localities are more willing to eat brightly colored food than dull-colored foods. As a result there are many diet-related health problems in these areas. Food advocates and food companies working together with our vibrant and protein based dyes could develop healthy and delicious food products that are colored with the novel CBCR proteins, and will be helpful in instigating positive dietetic change as they are bright and appealing. Consumers in the bright-food-preferring localities now start to buy these healthier food products and the overall health of the communities improves.

How Could We Increase the Public Health Outcomes of Our Dye?

We interviewed Dr. Bruce German, who studies human-bacteria interactions to better understand how our microbiomes contribute to improved health. He suggested that while a dye that actually broke down into amino acids and contributed to metabolic function (unlike traditional coal-tar dye) would make for a slightly healthier alternative, a more dynamic solution may be to place the entire organism in the final product. Currently, Bacillus subtilis¸ ideally our final vector for the gene, is used in the production of kombucha, a fermented tea drink that is supposed to enrich the microbiome. Perhaps our final product could go into something like this and rather than relying on added juices to color the drink, the bacteria could provide the consumer attracting color. Additionally, alternative implantations of the gene could be used in anything from cheese rennet to yogurt. However, implanting the whole bacteria would make it exceptionally easy to purchase the food, extract the bacteria, and grow your own, opening up questions for patent infringement that are discussed further in a later section. Additionally any products which contain the full B. subtilis organism would be subject to labeling as GMO under Senate Bill 764.

What Are Possible Environmental Outcomes of Our Dye?

Alternatively, the environmental effects of the artificial and/or other “natural” food colors are mitigated when the new CBCR dyes are released into the market. As we have mentioned before, the artificial food dyes are made from processed petroleum, which is not ideal for the natural environment nor is it necessarily a sustainable practice given long term projections of petroleum depletion. Additionally, “natural” dyes currently on the market are wasteful—using up arable land in order to alter the superficial traits of food for cosmetic purposes creates a cash crop. Furthermore cash crops are often planted in areas where the population farming them is in dire need of food, and perpetuates wealth disparities. A bacteria based production system would eliminate land waste and allow for other measures to put arable land to use nourishing farmers.

What Are the Possible Patent Litigation Outcomes of Our Dye?

These dyes, as they can be grown in Generally Regarded As Safe (GRAS) organisms could be produced by the end user, like a small cupcake shop or a very serious home baker, given enough scientific dedication. This would allow for a democratization in the means of food dye production, as people could effectively grow their own food dyes. This liberty was not remotely available in the instances with traditional natural dyes which require substantial harvesting in magnitudes that would not be effective for the average chef. Nor would it be possible given that petroleum processing into small molecules is not a task for the standard baker. While our team has mastered extraction of the protein, which is a necessary condition as we are currently expressing in E. coli the final product in B. subtilis need not be removed from the original bacterium, which acts as a probiotic. However, if this result were to come to pass, the Intellectual Property concerns would be staggering. Because our dye is made in a living vector, the question is not about volume of resources once the first being is successfully made. Instead, like with culture, computer programs, or other types of information, the spreading of our safe but possibly proprietary bacteria would be nigh impossible to stop from within the imagined scientific baking communities. Even if large food companies were the only ones harvesting from these beings, it would still be a substantial challenge to keep all competitors from gathering even one bacterium from which they could harness the entire means too creating a food dye.

Techno-Moral Scenario:

The Case of the Blue Frosting

—Caligiuri and Chen, Opposing Attorneys at Food—

Year 2025


“A court summons!?” Samir, former biomedical engineer and present cupcake shop proprietor cried as he plopped down in the egg-shaped chair on the other side of my desk. “These cupcakes are completely natural! As natural as a cupcake can be!”

I paced across the office, and stared speculatively out of the window overlooking the San Francisco bay and the Bay Bridge. From this thoughtful posture, I responded, “Samir, how did you come into contact with the plaintiff?”


It’s a Silicon Valley fable—as a successful biomedical engineer who moonlights as a web designer, Samir had everything he had hoped for: a meaningful career with limitless upward mobility, a hand in world-changing technological developments, and intellectual freedom to study whatever he liked as a senior researcher at GenAmCorp. But the work-life balance had become much more of an imbalance, and he found himself with less and less time for his one true passion—cupcakes.

After quitting his job and moving to Berkeley, CA, Samir found a quaint storefront right on Telegraph and Bancroft. He perfected his recipes to enhance their nutritional value in order to capitalize on the healthy eating market in Berkeley. His goal was to have a vegan and gluten free establishment—to compete with the likes of historic area confectioners Seed + Salt and Bio Café. Given his significant knowledge of chemistry and technology, he was certain that he could put together healthy and decadent food that everyone could enjoy, regardless of dietary restriction. He prepared to showcase his lemon-kale creations front and center, alongside the seaweed-blueberry, papaya-grapefruit, and mango-carrot confections. The cakes themselves were easy to make—by blending together the healthful fruits and veggies with almond milk, a mixture of gluten-free flours, almond meal, beet puree, apple cider vinegar, agave, coconut oil, and other specialty ingredients, which he believed were as natural as cupcake materials could be. Similar recipes to the ones Samir uses can be found here: (his differed vastly in the intricacy of the flavors, but this articled gives one a sense of how such natural cupcakes can be made).

But the frosting posed a serious problem. The cakes were each bright and vibrant—green, lavender, pink, and orange—but he could not find a good way to color the frosting. While it was easy to make a vegan frosting out of sugar, almond milk, and coconut oil. But he struggled to make the frosting bright—every time he tried to mix in a traditional natural coloring, the cupcakes were wrecked. He tried to make a yellow with turmeric and ginger, but it ruined the intended flavor profile. He tried with spirulina, but it was quite expensive at the quantities he was purchasing before the launch, and the color was not very brilliant. He even tried to blend carrot directly into his frosting, but the result was barely orange and overly fibrous. He went to the local food co-op, and found a bright set of colorings labelled “natural,” and which, according to the supplement facts on the back of the box, contained much more protein than any other dye on the market or any of the natural products. He returned home and found that the protein dye worked perfectly, and he was finally ready for his grand opening. He named the cupcake shop “Nature’s Twist” in reference to the fusion flavors and dedication to health conscious ingredients.

His business was quite successful. His model fit in well with the Berkeley vibes, and many students and locals were excited to frequent his shop. Unlike traditional cupcakes, Samir’s robust combination of fruits, vegetables, nuts, healthy oils, and lots’ of sugar energized the patrons. The protein-loaded frosting the athletically inclined, who had resigned themselves to a life without bright cupcakes.

Some of his patrons quickly became regulars. One of his favorite customers was one his college classmates, Brent, who had since become a co-owner of the hot yoga studio in the co-op he lived in. Since Brent had a bioengineering background and an interest in the detailed dietetic profile of the cupcakes, he and Samir often had long conversations about the cupcakes. As a result, Brent could easily list off the ingredients in the cake itself—even the surprising flax seed! So when Brent brought back dozens of cupcakes for the other instructors at the yoga studio, he proudly regaled them with information about the nutritional benefits off the beet puree. His co-owner, River, was impressed, but wondered how the frosting got to be such a bright color without an altered flavor if it came from a natural colorant. Brent had never asked, and watched resigned as River scraped the frosting off of his cupcake with the biodegradable post-consumer wrapper. River would not even compost the colorful frosting out of concern about the artificialness of the colorful dye.

The next day, Brent went to Nature’s Twist and asked Samir “What exactly is in the frosting?” Samir admitted that he bought it at the store, and that he wasn’t entirely sure himself, but that the package was labelled natural. Due to their close friendship, Brent felt comfortable asking to see the packaging in order to see exactly how this miracle dye was made, and Samir was happy to have someone educated in biotechnology look into it while he took another batch of lemon-kale cakes out of the oven. Brent reported back that the dye was natural in the sense that the protein itself was created through evolution and that it was grown in biological vectors, specifically Bacillus subtilis, a Generally Regarded As Safe (GRAS) probiotic bacteria. This easily satisfied Brent, and he recommended that Samir put information about the dye on his website in the interests of transparency and to emphasize how the dye is actually a very special resource. Later that night, Samir added a page to the site paraphrasing the food dye’s creation and including a couple of images from their website.

The next day, his email was bombarded with others who had believed that he sold “organic” and natural products and felt deceived. Some emails were all caps outrages, but others included genuine complaints about his use of the world natural to represent his creations. A few days later, a woman walked into the shop. Samir sold her a cupcake, and as she dug through her purse she pulled out a manila envelope. “You’ve been served.” Then she paid her five dollars in cash and left.


“And the next day I received this letter. They want me to change the name of my business! But I haven’t done anything wrong. Do they think that the cupcakes just grow on trees? This letter is complaining about the frosting—they never saw any issue with the cakes themselves. I never said that what I produced was organic-- almost all modern papayas are genetically engineered, so they must have known that some of the products were genetically modified. And they never took issue with the fact that the almond meal was technically processed! It’s not plain almonds, they are ground up. By the logic of this, anything that has been created with assistance from people is artificial! I have been very careful not to use any ingredients that don’t exist in nature! Nothing in my shop is chemically synthesized!! Either everything in my shop is natural or nothing is!”

I turned around, straightened his tie, and said, “I see where you are coming from… it seems to me that you have used a natural food dye. But, natural is not really an objective term anymore.

“After we got your call, I did some digging. In 2016, the Food and Drug Administration here in the US had a call for comments about regulating the term ‘natural’ but due to conflicting interests and lobbying they ultimately determined to leave it unlabeled. Contemporary class action litigation settled out of court mid-appeal so the preceding judgements were unpublished. So, as it stands, their definition of natural is as legally binding as yours.”

Samir sighed, “Why does it matter!”

“Because,” I explained, “not everyone is comfortable with the idea that the world we live in is completely constructed. People want to feel a connection to themselves and the planet, and one of the only ways left for them to control that is with what they eat. Though industrial agricultural practices are a far cry from the pastoral farms where people imagine their food comes from, labels like organic or natural are supposed to indicate something untouched by people.”

“But I’m making the cupcakes! They are touched by me! But I don’t use corn syrup or chemically altered or synthesized ingredients. Doesn’t that mean anything to them?” Samir pleaded.

“The us vs. them mentality, though tempting, hasn’t yielded any real change since the great GMO debates. The real issue here isn’t that nature as such is disappearing or that your cupcakes are natural in some ways or artificial in some ways. The issue here is that we don’t have the words that we need to be able to talk about this. We can argue forever on whether something is artificial or natural—and where that boundary should be. But that isn’t fruitful, not right now.

“The motion filed here is one for injunctive relief alongside compensory and punitive damages. They want you to label the frostings as artificial.”

“I won’t! They aren’t! Not any more than anything else in the human food system. I’m not going to lie to my customers because someone wants me to.”

“Alright, we will file a motion to dismiss to the fraud claims in the Northern District of California, but if that doesn’t go through, we’ll have to keep working. I don’t think the courts are the right venue for deciding where this boundary exists… but if this class gets certified, the limits of natural may be determined by twelve near-random citizens. We could implead the company that made the dye, but honestly that might provide more incentive for opposing counsel not to settle—they know that you have limited resources as a small business owner and may not have very much money to pay an adverse judgement, but if we bring in a big food company or a biotech firm they may believe that they would have a lot more to win by demanding a higher level of damages.”

The two of us shared a grimace, and my secretary poked his head in to tell us that the next client was here.


Samir and I arrived early to the deposition. Our pretrial motions had been speedily denied, and we were in discovery before we knew it. Opposing counsel had put out a carafe of Peet’s Coffee and the two of us began to partake. In stepped the competing attorney, who adjusted his glasses, casting a glare from the lens onto the briefs that sat on the table. “Hello, my name is Jon, and this is my client Amanda.”

Samir and I put down our coffees and shook hands. We all sat down at the table and Jon’s secretary began setting up the camera mounted within the smartwall to record the exchanges.

Before the camera was on, I asked the only real question that I had, “Why are you bringing this suit?”

Jon looked to Amanda and Amanda nodded. She began, “It matters what I eat. And it matters where it comes from. Many food dyes throughout history have been literally poisonous due to insufficient regulation. And that hasn’t ended. Red #3 was shown in the 1990’s to be more carcinogenic than the federal standards and it was only ever on the provisional lists. Yet it still keeps Marciano cherries bright red. And I’ve been upset over how genetically engineered foods with augmented proteins only have those proteins tested, and not the food in its entirety. I don’t want to eat this. I’m not saying you have to pull it from the market, but I have the right to not buy something that I think is harmful for me. I don’t buy artificial dyes, and those are labeled.

“Some GMO foods are labelled. But due to very poor legislative drafting on Senate Bill 764 from 2016, I know that your products don’t have to be labeled because your business is too small for such regulation to apply, though otherwise you would have to label your papaya-grapefruit flavor unless you did not use whole papaya in your cupcake and instead used pasteurized papaya where the DNA histones would denature and therefore GM DNA would no longer exist in a way that the bill could be applied. Anyway, your frosting would not have to be labeled in the first place because it only uses proteins that come from a genetically modified organism, and none of the DNA is present in the purified dyes.

“So, the only way that I can express this dissatisfaction is through this kind of lawsuit—fraud. And I really don’t have anything against your company otherwise. I do believe that if you use organic produce in the entire recipe, that those are natural cupcakes. And if you omitted the coloring in the frosting then the cupcakes could be natural. But as they are now, they aren’t.”

“Don’t you see!” Samir pleaded “The cupcakes do not naturally exist, and neither do the constituent parts. The beets were planted by people, the lemons—and I do use organic Myers’ Lemons-- have been augmented through traditional breeding to be significantly genetically different than the ones that would exist naturally. My cupcakes are natural because I omit highly processed and synthetic ingredients.”

“It’s not that the cupcakes are made that is unnatural. That is not a human intervention in my food that upsets me. I combine ingredients and mill, puree, grind, and process foods all the time in my own kitchen. The way I see it, performing these actions doesn’t make anything unnatural. It’s that which is genetically modified that upsets me. It’s the genetic alteration that bothers me, and it is the way that the genetic alteration is regulated that I truly take issue with.

“I understand that all selective breeding is genetically engineered—and by that logic you would have to label poodles genetically modified. But there is something different my altering the genome precisely. I understand that other mechanisms of genetic engineering are entirely unregulated, such as the results of radioactive mutagenisis, but I am ok with that because the genome is not changed by computation and human determination. I think that where we intervene with DNA through specifically transgenic means, we are making something unnatural because it could never occur that way under any circumstances in nature. Radiation is natural as is mutation—like selective breeding, in my book, they are humans accelerating and directing nature, but not precisely confounding it. Taking banana genes and putting them in a tomato could never occur. And taking genes from cyanobacteria from Yellowstone Hot Springs, printing them out in Iowa, injecting them into vectors in California through transformation and cloning, purifying out the proteins and putting them in a cupcake is artificial. That process isn’t natural from the point where the genome of the cyanobacteria is downloaded on the first researchers’ computer and it sure as hell isn’t natural at ‘Nature’s Twist.’

“I don’t have an issue with the research itself, biosimilar insulin is produced through transgenic Chinese hamster ovary cells and my best friend with type one diabetes uses this insulin every day. But the regulation is more robust for this, and the need is so much more pressing. That choice is one that I am happy to make but at least it is presented to me as a choice.”

“But this dye isn’t the same as the artificial dyes on the market. Those are coal-tar dyes from processed petroleum. They are small molecules that exist nowhere in nature and must be synthesized in the lab. The protein here exists in the natural world in a chemical state completely identical to that which is put into the frosting. Furthermore, the protein in the frosting is made by living beings. None of the artificial dyes are made by living things. You cannot call it artificial because it is simply too far from the artificial products.”

“Well, I don’t care about the other things that are labeled artificial. This dye is not something that should be labeled natural.”

Jon straightened his tie, and raised his hand from the desk. “I think we could reach a settlement here.” He looked from Amanda to Samir and back again. “These dyes are identical to natural proteins, right?”

“Absolutely. They have the exact same molecular structure and composition. As a composition of matter the proteins themselves cannot even be patented because they are too natural to meet the standard set by the US Trade and Patent Office.”

“But they are not being produced in their natural organism or in their natural state, isn’t that true?”

“That is true. They are produced in a different vector.”

“How would you react to a customer asking not to have frosting, or to have uncolored frosting?”

“I would be fine with that. Some people already request no frosting because they don’t want the extra sugar and oil in their diets. And I do uncolored frosting when I cater weddings, so I have a formula.”

“Would you feel comfortable posting that people could request uncolored frosting?”

“Yes, I would.”

“Would you feel comfortable listing visibly that the dyes are nature identical, and having two sentences explaining in layman’s terms what that means?”

“Yes, that would be ok.”

“Alright. Now Amanda, if he labelled the frostings as containing nature identical dyes, and you explained that they were molecularly the same as the natural dye but sourced from a different bacteria in a different setting, would you feel adequately informed about the content of the frosting?”

“Yes. I want to be able to avoid it.”

“Hey!” Samir injected. “I’m not happy with that. I don’t want my customers avoiding this product, and if labelling them like that will enable that, then I won’t do it. Genetically engineered food is necessary in order to feed the planet as our exponential population growth continues. And people like her are making it even harder to achieve this goal. I’m ok with people wanting to skip the frosting for their own health, but I don’t want to indulge this incorrect view point.”

“Samir, I don’t think that’s right. I think that you are not going to be able to convince her that this is natural. You have a different understanding of the world given you experiences, and the way that you see natural is totally justified. For you, natural means using whole fruits and veggies, augmenting them with minimally processed products, and prioritizing human health outcomes. This is a very productive approach and it is completely legitimate. But you don’t get to enforce this definition on others.” Jon calmly stated.

“But she’s enforcing her view of natural by making me label my products as anything but!”

Jon straightened his tie, “To some degree that is true. But the nature identical label represents a compromise. Rather than identifying your product as artificial when it does not fit alongside other artificial products, we are finding a way to be more specific about where it comes from. Yes, people can take this information and avoid the product, but that is their right. It is the consumer’s body, and they should be able to make informed decisions about what to put in it. By increasing the specificity, we can finally get over the contentions of whether something is or is not natural. It doesn’t matter because natural as a simple, inherently drawn category does not exist. Natural is however we define it. So rather than arguing about whether something does or does not fit in this socially constructed category, we can really make things more clear for everyone involved. The truth is that this is a nature identical product of a lot of human labor, human art. It’s not sourced from artificial chemical processing. It’s not grown in this composition anywhere on the planet without genetic intervention.”



In the end, no one was very happy. Samir received more consumer requesting uncolored frosting and when he explained what nature identical meant in greater detail, customers often asked for the white frosting. But he did not receive any complaints from these customers, and Amanda even started coming to the shop and enjoying the cupcakes. THE END


[2] McCann, et al. (2007) "Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial." The Lancet 370 (9598):1560-1567. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(07)61306-3.

[3] Burrows, J.D., A. (2009), Palette of Our Palates: A Brief History of Food Coloring and Its Regulation. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, 8: 394–408. doi:10.1111/j.1541-4337.2009.00089.x


[5] National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Compound Database; CID=19700, (accessed Oct. 3, 2016).




[9] 21 C.F.R. 101.22(a)(4)(c) (2016). (

[10] Public Law 114-216, SB 764 signed 7/29/2016, creating 7 U.S.C. 1639 et al. (

[11] This practice is technically legal in the US under this senate bill, however it is sufficiently vague that it would fall under the purview of the court to determine whether this was within the writers of the statute’s intent. Additionally, they will see other products that are labeled GMO, and the GMO label will be enforced by the USDA, so they feel comfortable that anything that they buy lacking that label are not GMO.

[12] Lidwell, W., Holden, K., & Butler, J. (2015). The Pocket Universal Principles of Design. Beverly, MA: Rockport.

[13] Burrows, J.D., A. (2009), Palette of Our Palates: A Brief History of Food Coloring and Its Regulation. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, 8: 394–408. doi:10.1111/j.1541-4337.2009.00089.x