As climate change looms over our future, many industries are turning to biotechnology for solutions to make all aspects of our lives more sustainable for the environment.
Biotechnology is uniquely positioned to replace polluting materials and chemical processes with more sustainable, biological alternatives. This scientific field draws from millions of years of evolution in which living beings have specialized in producing and recycling all kinds of compounds and materials. These biological processes can be used to efficiently break down waste and produce materials with lower pollution, water, land, and energy use than traditional methods.
The number of applications where biotechnology could make a difference towards sustainability is virtually unlimited. Here are 10 of the areas where biotech is already making an impact.
Plastic pollution is one of the major environmental issues we’re currently facing. The waste from petrochemical plastic production plants, as well as the tonnes of non-biodegradable plastic that is thrown away daily, are huge problems for the environment. New technologies that incorporate biology in the production of plastics could offer a more sustainable alternative.
In Amsterdam, Avantium is developing methods to produce 100% recyclable bioplastics from agricultural and forestry waste — the company is working with big brands such as Coca-Cola and Danone to produce sustainable bottles and yogurt cups. Over in France, the company Carbios is using microbial enzymes to break down and recycle commonly used plastics. Other companies developing bioplastics are Corbion Purac and Synbra in the Netherlands and Futerro in France.
Stronger and more sustainable detergents are one of the earliest applications of industrial biotechnology. Back in the 60s, Danish biotech giant Novozymes started selling the first enzymatic detergents. They consist of specialized enzymes obtained from microorganisms that are able to break down molecules behind difficult stains, such as blood and fat. And unlike chemical alternatives, enzymatic detergents are biodegradable.
Over time, new generations of enzymatic detergents have become more and more effective. A key advantage is that they can work at lower temperatures, therefore reducing the amount of energy spent on washing clothes. In addition, enzymatic detergents can be used to clean medical equipment more thoroughly and efficiently than common cleaning solutions.
Fossil fuels are the biggest culprit behind air pollution, which is estimated to kill millions of people each year. In recent years, biofuels produced from crops have become an increasingly common alternative. However, these crops are starting to compete for agricultural land, which can contribute to deforestation and rising food prices.
Several companies are harnessing the natural ability of some microorganisms to break down agricultural or forestry waste to produce fuels. This is one of the goals of the French company Global Bioenergies, which is working with Audi to produce gasoline from sustainable sources such as wheat straw and wood chips. The Swiss firm Clariant is also developing methods to turn agricultural waste into biodiesel in collaboration with ExxonMobil. Other companies such as Solaga in Germany and AlgaEnergy in Spain are researching how to produce fuels from sunlight and carbon dioxide using algae.
The meat industry is a huge polluter. Biotechnology could significantly reduce the use of land, water, and energy by growing meat without the animal, directly from a small sample of muscle and fat cells. This approach would also reduce the use of antibiotics in meat production as it can be created in sterile lab conditions.
In 2020, Singapore became the first country to approve the commercialization of a cultivated meat product, developed by US-based company Eat Just. That year, companies developing meat alternatives tripled their funding. Among them are Mosa Meat in the Netherlands making on beef burgers, UK-based Higher Steaks growing pork, Israeli company Super Meat working on poultry, or US company Finless Foods culturing fish cells. Many others are working on replacing animal products including steaks, sausages, foie gras, egg white, and dairy.
Most flavorings were traditionally extracted from plants. Today, however, many of them are produced through petrochemical processes. Biotechnology could provide an environmentally friendly alternative that does not require as much land and resources as traditional methods.
For example, traditionally 160,000 oranges are needed to produce just a liter of the orange flavoring molecule valencene. Instead, bacteria or yeast can be engineered to produce these molecules in industrial vats, reliably producing large volumes of virtually any flavoring. A leader in this field is Evolva, in Switzerland, which produces the natural sweetener stevia, as well as orange, vanilla, and grapefruit flavors. Other companies producing flavorings through biotechnological methods include Phytowelt in Germany and Isobionics in the Netherlands.
The production of many construction materials, such as concrete, can require toxic chemicals and large volumes of energy and water. The process also generates high levels of carbon emissions that contribute to global warming. Several companies are looking at how living beings could help us make the building industry more sustainable.
In London, a startup called Biohm is looking into using mushrooms to produce construction materials from organic waste. In the Netherlands, the company Green Basilisk seeks to increase the lifespan of concrete by embedding it with bacteria that repair the material when it suffers damage. US-based Biomason uses similar microbes to create cement tiles with a low-carbon footprint.
Chemical crop fertilizers are responsible for environmental pollution all around the world. A more sustainable alternative would be to replace them with living microbes that can interact with the crops to stimulate their growth and health.
That is the goal of companies such as Kapsera in France, Xtrem Biotech in Spain, and Aphea.Bio in Belgium. Chemical giant Bayer has also entered this area through a joint venture with US-based startup Ginkgo Bioworks, with the goal of engineering microorganisms to fix nitrogen for crops such as soy and peas, replacing chemical nitrogen fertilizers.
Current methods to get rid of dangerous pathogens use harsh chemicals that can pollute the environment and be toxic for humans as well as other forms of life. Biotechnology could offer an eco-friendly alternative that relies on natural mechanisms to fight pathogens.
In France, a company called Amoeba aims to use Willaertia magna amoeba to protect crops from fungal infections such as rust disease; the solution is currently waiting for an approval decision in Europe. Over in Belgium, the company Biotalys (previously Agrosavfe) engineers proteins inspired by llama antibodies to target specific pathogens without harming other species. There’s also the Swiss biotech Agrosustain, which draws from molecules that plants produce to protect them from mold infections.
Many natural cosmetics contain active ingredients sourced from plants. However, for some of these ingredients, the amount obtained from a plant can be quite small compared to the amount of land, water, and energy that are needed to produce it.
Companies such as Bioeffect in Iceland or Biossance in the US are looking at producing these compounds more sustainably through microbial fermentation. Using this fermentation technology, the French biotech company Deinove is able to produce the anti-aging compound phytoene in its pure form, with the goal of using it as an ingredient for skincare products. The firm also does research into new cosmetic ingredients by studying bacteria that are able to live in the extreme conditions of hot water springs.
Fast fashion is a big sustainability issue. Biotechnology could put a stop to its environmental impact by replacing polluting chemical processes and making textile waste recyclable and biodegradable. Enzymes are already used routinely to wash and bleach clothing and to prevent wool from shrinking. New technologies could allow us to go further by using microbes to produce textiles.
That is the case of AMSilk in Germany, which uses bacterial fermentation to produce spider silk fibers. Among the many applications of this material, the company is working with Adidas to make a biodegradable running shoe that does not leave waste behind. Also in Germany, the startup Algalife is using algae to produce textile fibers from just sunlight and water. Companies like Pili in France and Colorifix in the UK are also looking into using microbes to produce sustainable textile dyes that can replace the harsh chemicals used today.
This article was originally published on 22/10/2019 and updated on 03/05/2021 to reflect recent advances in the various fields featured.