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Close-up view of microscope lens

BOSTON—Out on an old Navy dry dock, a biotech company called Ginkgo Bioworks is growing genetically modified organisms by the billions, and it would very much like to tell you about them.

“I think people should love GMOs,” Gingko’s CEO and cofounder, Jason Kelly, told me. “We’re super proud of them.”

It helps the message, perhaps, that Ginkgo is not a big ag corporation shrouded in secrecy, but a small company founded by a band of exuberant nerds from MIT. Ginkgo reprograms single-celled organisms like yeast and bacteria into mini factories churning out useful molecules for food, perfumes, and industrial applications. For fun, its scientists also brew beer with their genetically modified yeast. The lunchroom is stacked with multiple versions of Settlers of Catan. And it’s thrown open the doors open to journalists curious for a whiff of fragrances made via genetic engineering.

Ginkgo publicly waded into the GMO-labeling debate in 2016, when Kelly published a New York Times op-ed titled, “I Run a GMO Company—and I Support GMO Labeling.” He began by talking about his diabetic father, whose...