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Biotech boom brings new medicines and biofuels but fears about GM remain

Newman's biotech company is creating new organisms, mostly forms of genetically modified yeast, at the dizzying rate of more than 1,500 a day. Some convert sugar into medicines. Others create moisturisers that can be used in cosmetics. And still others make biofuel, a renewable energy source usually made from corn.

"You can now build a cell the same way you might build an app for your iPhone," said Newman, chief science officer of Amyris.

Some believe this kind of work marks the beginning of a third industrial revolution – one based on using living systems as "bio-factories" for creating substances that are either too tricky or too expensive to grow in nature or to make with petrochemicals.

The rush to biological means of production promises to revolutionise the chemical industry and transform the economy, but it also raises questions about environmental safety and biosecurity and revives ethical debates about "playing God". Hundreds of products are in the pipeline.

Laboratory-grown artemisinin, a key anti-malarial drug, went on sale in April with the potential to help stabilise supply issues. A vanilla flavouring that promises to be significantly cheaper than the costly extract made from beans grown in rainforests is scheduled to hit the markets in 2014.

Last month, Amyris announced another milestone – a memorandum of understanding with Brazil's largest low-cost airline, GOL Linhas Aéreas, to begin using a jet fuel produced by yeast starting in 2014.

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