GMO MOSS MADE TO SMELL LIKE PATCHOULI, GERANIOL AND LINALOOL
Moss is an unusual and very interesting plant. It has no roots and can grow almost anywhere in almost any habitat. It also plays host to a large and varied community of microscopic life. If you thought hair was small, moss leaves are a single cell thick. And how moss reproduces is crazy even in the plant world, which is pretty crazy. But to make things even crazier, a group of very creative scientists are taking moss a step (or two) further and are using genetic designing models to craft moss to produce a fragrance. So far, they have managed three scents for moss to smell like: patchouli, geraniol and linalool.
BIOTECH STARTUP TAXA INTRODUCED AROMATIC MOSS LAST MONTH AT SYNBIOBETA
The group is working out of a Bay Area biotech startup called Taxa, which debuted the fragrance producing moss called Orbella. Media got the opportunity to take a smell test last month at the SynBioBeta conference in San Francisco. As it’s close enough to Napa Valley, identifying the nose of each Moss involved many of the same vocabulary. The geraniol and patchouli were both subtle, with some earthiness and floral hints on top of what is already an earthy moss. The linalool stood out and exuded a fragrance not unlike a new air freshener, offering a strong floral nose very similar to basil.
MOSS DESIGNED BY SPLICING, GENETIC INJECTION
To achieve scented moss, CEO Antony Evans said that Taxa spliced in genes associated with a certain scent—like, say, patchouli—into moss genes, designing the genes to insert into the moss online, literally inserting those genes into moss cells a gene gun and then growing the newly engineered moss cells in liquid form in the lab.
Taxa’s vision, though, is bigger than next generation Chia pets.
WHAT SIDE OF THE TREE IS NORTH? THE SIDE THAT SMELLS LIKE PATCHOULI
“We’re interested in sustainability,” Evans said. “Eventually everything we produce will be produced biologically.” Evans envisions using moss in much the same way that pharmaceutical companies are now using yeast to synthesize the components of drugs. Moss is an ideal plant for such a vision because you can grow it as a liquid. Splice some moss with say, vitamin B, and you could simply harvest a little moss to throw in your smoothie every morning to get your daily dose.
“Moss is like a little self-replicating, zero-waste factory,” he said.
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GOAL TO DESIGN AIR FILTERING, SCENTED MOSS FOR HOUSEHOLDS
In the meantime, Taxa is working on creating more scents. After that, the company’s next project will be to splice moss with a mouse gene that helps to mediate toxicity in the mouse body, including its lungs. The theory is this gene might also make moss more efficient at cleaning the air, functioning like a biologically powered air filter.
His ultimate goal, to turn moss into a kind of sustainability powerhouse, veers sharply toward science fiction.
“The real future is even crazier,” Evans said. “Every time you wanted a new flavor of moss, you could just download it online and it would automatically be engineered in your kitchen.” Basically, Star Trek’s replicator, but with moss.
The company also hopes to demystify genetic engineering, seducing customers with cool moss and then sending out emails on topics such as “Genetic Engineering 101” and “Designing DNA Constructs.”
That vitamin-producing moss vision, it’s safe to say, is still one that’s pretty far in the future. Fragrant moss is a pivot from Taxa’s original product, a bioluminescent plant that in 2013 raised $484,013 on Kickstarter. But the plant (first a tobacco plant, then glowing moss) never did glow quite brightly enough to be discernible without squinting your eyes in total darkness. The problem: While it’s easy to splice a few genes for bioluminescence into a plant, it’s a lot harder to get them to visibly express. The same issue, no doubt, is the reason that the patchouli-scented moss was only subtly patchouli-y.
In the meantime, though, moss that smells anything besides mossy is still really pretty neat.