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Aspartame and E. coli, oh my!

by Josh DeWald

November 15, 2013

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Donate A "news item" recently came across my Facebook page which has a pretty remarkable claim:aspartame is made from E.coli feces!
The even more remarkable thing: That it's true. Sort of.

Here's how it is worded in the entry (from the blog of a maker of various supplements, including an energy drink) that made the rounds on Facebook:
Apparently the E. coli are grown in tanks and, as they defecate, their fecal matter is harvested because it contains aspartic acid-phenylalanine amino acid —the protein needed to make the aspartame. These fecal proteins are then treated with methanol to produce the artificial sweetener.
The primary source is actually a NaturalNews article which described the production process. If you read the NaturalNews article, which quotes from the aspartame production patent, it's easy to see that already the "Gnarly" version has misstated the truth. The "Gnarly" article implies that, through some amazing coincidence, E. Coli just happen to produce the aspartic acid-phenylalanine mix and that Ajinmoto (Ajinmoto acquired aspartame from Monsanto in 2000) needs to make aspartame. And yet their own article mentions that it is "GM" (scary!) E.coli, so it's clear that it's not e.coli in its natural form.

The NaturalNews article directly quotes from the abstract of the patent (emphasis mine):
The artificial sweetener aspartame, a dipeptide with the formula Asp-Phe-me, is produced using a cloned micrcorganism. A DNA which codes for a large stable peptide comprised of the repeating amino acid sequence (Asp-Phe)n is inserted into a cloning vehicle which in turn is introduced into a suitable host microorganism. The host microorganism is cultured and the large peptide containing the repeating Asp-Phe sequence is harvested therefrom..."
So it turns out to be true that the components of aspartame are harvested from E.coli, though actually the patent mentions E.coli, Bacillus subtilis and E.coli K12 strain (harmless).

The author of the NaturalNews article says "common sense dictates that this abomination doesn't belong anywhere near our bodies". Does it? Should we be scared?

No, not really. First of all, the word "fecal" is a bit loaded here as it carries the connotation of being analogous to human waste. As a friend so amazingly put it, it's really only the same in the sense that "we are breathing tree excrement".

But even getting that out of the way, shouldn't we be worried that aspartame is made using E.coli? Isn't that just absolutely disgusting?

Only if you want to think of it that way. The process used is standard now as E.coli is the primary organism used for recombinant DNA processes. So this "excrement" or "fecal matter" is really just proteins made based on modified DNA. Or as stated in the 1981 patent:
It is known that the nucleotide base sequence GAC comprises a codon for aspartic acid (Asp). It is also known that the nucleotide base sequence TTT comprises a codon for phenylalanine (Phe) . Inserting such codons in the DNA of a microorganism, preceded and followed by appropriate processing or termination codons, under appropriate control, and in the correct reading frame, would result in the microorganism producing the dipeptide Asp-Phe as part of its own protein producing processes.
Basically, awesome, awesome science in action (and this patent is from 1981, the process is probably improved by now).

So are the manufacturers of aspartame wile rogues in the area of using E.coli to produce food-grade material.

Not in the slightest.

As a 2013 study notes:
In fact, microbes are widely used for the biosynthesis of numerous valuable molecules such as antitumor, anticancer, antiviral, antiparasitic, antioxidant, immunological, agents, antibiotics and hormones" and that "Currently, Escherichia coli, on one hand, and Saccharomyces cerevisiae, on the other hand, are employed for the microbial synthesis of almost all natural products of interest.

While aspartame isn't "natural", aspartic acid and phenylalanine are.

As of 2009, there were 151 "recombinant pharmaceuticals" approved by FDA produced using yeast and bacteria (e.coli). As that one points out: "The enterobacterium E. coli is the first-choice microorganism for the production of recombinant proteins, and widely used for primarily cloning, genetic modification and small-scale production for research purposes."

For example, multiple forms of insulin (Humulin, Novolin, Humalog, Apidra) intended to be nearly identical to human insulin (hence their names) are produced using e.coli. Prior to the early 1980s, animal insulin was used.

So aspartame may have been one of the earlier uses of this form of biotechnology to produce complex molecules, but it is in no sense alone in it. This is not "yet another" example of how Monsanto is trying to kill us all through their wily ways (especially since they didn't invent aspartame in the first place, but got it with their purchase of Searle). Rather, it's an "in your face" example of some of the amazing things that science can do. How cool is it that they can insert synthesized DNA into an organism and have it produce the proteins that we want?!

by Josh DeWald

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