More and more consumers are hoping to buy natural, sustainable and animal-free beauty products. Could bioengineering be the solution?
The process of fermentation has been used to make alcohol for thousands of years. Today, thanks to developments in bioengineering, the same process – where a microbe such as yeast interacts with a sugar molecule – is used to create large quantities of ingredients used in the beauty industry. .
This is important because rare natural ingredients can be wasted to make creams, while some ingredients harm the environment. For example, squalene, which is used in moisturizers, is traditionally taken from the livers of sharks, contributing to the deaths of millions of people every year.
To solve this environmental problem, and many others, the Californian company Amyris genetically engineers yeasts and ferments, or feeds them with sugar cane from sustainable sources, to produce natural and efficient molecules. Remarkably, these molecules can replicate the molecular structure of natural ingredients from unsustainable resources or be used to create new ones. But it’s not easy.
“A common challenge in fermentation-based manufacturing is selecting the right manufacturing strain that will best support production of the target molecule,” says Dr. Sunil Chandan, Chief Scientific Officer and Head of Research and Development at Amyris.
“A common challenge in fermentation-based manufacturing is selecting the right manufacturing strain that will best support the production of the target molecule.”
The company develops molecules for manufacturing in its Lab-To Market platform. Scientists start with automated DNA design and strain design to identify “winning” strains with high fermentation yield and productivity.
Engineers create molecules with yeast, effectively programming them like a computer. They even invented a Genotype Specification Language (GSL), which is a design tool based on a DNA programming language invented to speed up the design of molecules.
Scientists used to use portable pipettes for bioengineering, which required more time and resources and left more room for inconsistencies. Now the company is using high-throughput screening (HTS) to rapidly screen hundreds of thousands of possible strains. Artificial intelligence is used to speed up the process of selecting the best strain to use for manufacturing. “HTS is a critical component in bringing fermentation-based products from the lab to market efficiently and effectively,” Chandan explains.
Throughout this process, data is captured and analyzed by humans as well as machine learning to improve and accelerate development. The company’s Lab-to-Market system allows it to scale production from two liters to 200,000 liters of a target molecule.
By using bioengineered yeast fed on sugarcane to track a sequence of chemical reactions that occur in a living organism, the biotech company has created a library of naturally occurring molecules that can be used as ingredients for everything from sweeteners for beverages to cosmetics and perfumes. Here are some of those from his portfolio.
All plants and animals make squalene, a fatty molecule that strengthens and hydrates the skin’s moisture barrier, but deep-sea sharks make a lot of it for their buoyancy, which is why they are hunted for this ingredient. of skin care, which can still be found in some products. today. Fortunately, major brands have switched to plant-based, cruelty-free alternatives, including squalane. Amyris has used its synthetic biology platform to engineer and ferment yeast with sugar cane to create sustainable Neossance Squalane and estimates the product saves two million sharks every year.
Bisabolol is a calming ingredient used in skin care that is traditionally extracted from German chamomile or, more commonly, the endangered Brazilian Candeia tree. But biotechnology offers a more sustainable, reliable and profitable alternative. While it takes an average of 12 years to grow a new Candeia tree and a ton of plant material to harvest only 7 kg of bisabolol, the sustainable use of sugar cane as a raw material and biotechnology requires 230 times less agricultural land to produce the same amount of bisabolol compared to the endangered Brazilian Candeia tree.
Silicone is a common ingredient in shampoos, but silicone-based compounds such as D5 are bad for the environment and potentially bad for the hair, preventing moisturizing ingredients from penetrating the hair shaft. Amyris therefore developed Neossance Hemisqualane, which has heat-protecting qualities and has received extensive media coverage as the featured ingredient in American hairstylist Jonathan Van Ness’ new line of eco-friendly hair products.
Sandalwood is used in many perfumes and is linked to Indian culture. Although traditionally harvested with great respect, population growth has spurred demand for the essential oil, which is harvested from mature trees that are at least 30 years old. Over the decades, the trees have been overharvested, so the supply has dwindled. Now it’s incredibly expensive and the tree is an endangered species. Amyris makes a sustainable sandalwood-like oil that is an evolutionary alternative to the dying botanical source, and uses only one-tenth the actual surface area.
Amyris says its synthetic biology platform can quickly and sustainably produce virtually any molecule that exists in nature and transport it from lab to market with limitless applications. It has already marketed 13 ingredients, used in particular by L’Oréal or Estée Lauder, and has built its own range of sustainable consumer brands, including Biossance, of which actress Reese Witherspoon is the ambassador. The company is developing a pipeline to explore future molecules and applications and says it can access more than half of all the diversity of small molecules in nature.
John G Melo, Chairman, CEO and Director of Amyris, believes “clean chemistry” (a term hated by some) will find its way into more consumer products as environmentally conscious customers demand more natural and durable. “Our future growth is for more molecules, in more products, and used at higher rates in every application, much like Apple’s business model of putting the device operating system in your hands and then to become your everything from music to your source of movies to your connectivity and productivity tools,” he explains. This means that just as fermentation has revolutionized food and drink there are thousands of years, it could once again change what we consume on a daily basis.
Although the engineering behind skincare products can only be seen under a microscope, it could have a massive impact by providing sustainable alternative ingredients that help protect endangered species and our planet’s precious biodiversity.
Sugar cane as a cosmetic raw material
Sugar cane is a food crop, but it is also a rapidly renewable resource which, with reasoned cultivation, should meet everyone’s needs. Compared to alternatives, it’s a green option for creating ingredients for the beauty industry.
Amyris needs less than 0.1% of a hectare of sugar cane to produce 1 kg of squalane. To get the same amount of shark-derived squalene, three sharks would have to be killed.
Sugar cane crops are renewed each year, but it takes a shark 10 years to reach maturity, when its liver is large enough to be “harvested” for squalene. This shows how devastating the use of this cosmetic ingredient is when it comes from the vulnerable shark population.
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