As climate change looms over our future, many industries are turning to biology for solutions to make all aspects of our lives more sustainable for the environment. Biotech companies are rising to the challenge.
When developing more sustainable materials and processes, biotechnology draws from millions of years of evolution in which living beings have specialized in producing and recycling all kinds of compounds and materials. Biological processes can be used to replace polluting chemical methods, allowing us to efficiently break down waste and produce new materials with lower pollution, water, land, and energy use.
The number of applications where biotechnology could make a difference towards sustainability is virtually unlimited. Here are 10 areas where biotech is already making an impact.
Plastic pollution is one of the major environmental issues we’re currently facing. Both the waste from petrochemical plastic production plants and the many tonnes of non-biodegradable plastic that is thrown away daily are huge problems for the environment. New technologies to 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 Coca Cola and Danone to produce sustainable bottles and yogurt cups. Over in France, the company Carbios is working on recycling commonly used plastics using microbial enzymes, in collaboration with brands such as L’Oreal, Pepsi and Nestlé Waters. Other companies developing bioplastics are Corbion Purac and Synbra in the Netherlands and Futerro in France.
2. Enzymatic detergents
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. This could significantly reduce the amount of energy spent on washing clothes — especially as enzymatic detergents account for about a 50% share of the laundry detergent market.
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 going back to 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, or the Swiss Clariant 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.
4. Cultured meat
The meat industry is a huge polluter. Biotechnology could significantly reduce the use of land, water and energy use by growing meat without the animal, directly from muscle and fat cells. Importantly, this ‘cultured’ meat would also reduce the use of antibiotics in meat production as it can be created in sterile lab conditions.
Mosa Meat, a company founded by the first scientist to create lab-grown meat, is getting ready to launch its first cultured beef burger in 2021. Other companies in this field are seeking to grow meat from a range of different animals. Some examples are UK-based Higher Steaks that is growing pork, the Israeli company Super Meat working on poultry, or US company Finless Foods that is 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 – 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.
6. Construction materials
The production of many construction materials such as concrete requires toxic chemicals and large volumes of energy and water. The process also generates high levels of carbon emissions that contribute to global warming. Living beings could help us move towards more sustainable alternatives.
In London, a startup called Biohm is looking into producing construction materials from organic waste. One way it does this is with mushrooms, which can be fed on different types of waste to produce a material with custom characteristics. 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.
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 get rid of fungi in crops or legionella in cooling water towers. Another approach is to design molecules that can selectively kill crops infections. That is the case of Agrosavfe in Belgium, which engineers proteins inspired on llama antibodies, or the Swiss biotech Agrosustain, which draws from molecules that plants produce to protect them from mold infections.
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 plants 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 recently decided to get on board and formed a joint venture with US startup Ginkgo Bioworks to engineer microorganisms to fix nitrogen for crops such as soy and peas, replacing chemical nitrogen fertilizers.
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. Thanks to this technology, the French biotech company Deinove launched the first pure form of the anti-aging compound phytoene last year. 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.