Human Practices Silver
For the silver medal requirement, we considered various factors relating to the impact of kombucha and our research on the community.
Kombucha is a fermented beverage consumed around the world for its supposed health benefits. The drink originated in East Asia in 220 BCE and spread to places such as Japan, Europe, and Africa1. In recent years, it has gained popularity and today can be found globally. Though commonly home brewed, kombucha is also manufactured on a commercial scale. This wide audience of consumers means that research focused on better understanding kombucha and its microbiome can have a huge impact.
Kombucha’s purported health benefits have contributed heavily to its rapid rise in popularity. Claims have been made that kombucha can help the immune system, improve liver function, and prevent types of cancer and other diseases1. These purported health benefits are not well supported despite increasing scientific interest in kombucha. Many of these studies have used nonhuman subjects, leading to questions regarding relevance of their findings to human health. Research has, however, demonstrated kombucha has antimicrobial properties against different strains of bacteria due to the presence of organic acids1.
Regardless of the validity of the health claims surrounding kombucha, the microbiome that ferments the beverage provides a rich framework for modification with synthetic biology to create a designer beverage. By either adding different strains of bacteria or altering the genes present in the strains of bacteria, a variety of improvements may be possible. Possibilities our team has considered include lowering the amount of ethanol produced in the fermentation, improving flavor with biosynthesized brazzein, or visualizing the pH changes in the beverage with pH-sensitive promoter-reporter constructs.
Despite little concern among the scientific community regarding the safety of genetically modified foods, many kombucha consumers in the health and wellness community remain apprehensive of genetic modification. Though widespread public acceptance of genetically modified organisms is unlikely in the near future, modifying the kombucha microbiome with naturally occurring strains of bacteria could still allow some degree of customization without alienating potential consumers. Because of increasing public interest in kombucha, further research on the drink may someday provide a platform for a discussion of the benefits of synthetic biology with those who remain skeptical of the safety of genetically modified foods.
One impact of genetically modifying kombucha would be that someone would own the intellectual property rights to the altered beverage. Kombucha is easy to brew at home by adding store-bought kombucha to sweetened tea. Commercially produced kombucha contains all of the microbes needed for the fermentation process. However, genetically modified microbes could be patented, preventing consumers from legally culturing the microbes in their own home. There is a lot of debate regarding how much patent protection GMO companies should receive. The purpose of patenting genetically modified organisms is to give companies a time period to exclusively develop their products2. This promotes innovation and makes companies more likely to invest in genetic engineering. These laws could, however, limit the consumer's freedom to do as they wish with their purchased kombucha.
The agrochemical and biotechnology company Monsanto, for instance, has biological patents on its genetically modified seeds3. Despite the controversy surrounding the company, Monsanto is justified in having these rights because genetic modification is considered a technology. On various occasions, Monsanto has been in the center of the GMO debate. An increasing number of consumers and organic farmers are against the company, citing both safety concerns regarding GMOs and the seemingly malevolent business practices of large corporations3. They claim Monsanto doesn't have the public's interest in mind, quoting Phil Angell, Monsanto's director of corporate communications, "Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the F.D.A.'s job"4. Monsanto has also filed lawsuits against farmers for illegally using their seeds4. Because of the competitive nature of the kombucha industry, a similar issue may arise with genetically modifying the drink. This could detract from "do-it-yourself" nature of the drink.
- Jayabalan, R., Malbaša, R. V., Lončar, E. S., Vitas, J. S. and Sathishkumar, M. (2014), A Review on Kombucha Tea—Microbiology, Composition, Fermentation, Beneficial Effects, Toxicity, and Tea Fungus. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, 13: 538–550. doi:10.1111/1541-4337.12073
- Harvard University Science in the News
- Monsanto Company
- Genetic Literacy Project