Biotechnology and Sustainability: Stronger together
by Maria Koumouri
Protecting the environment is among the biggest challenges of the 21st century.
Air pollution and greenhouse effect are only a few of the factors that cause climate change. The field of biotechnology can play a role in promoting sustainable living (1). In simple words, scientists of this field utilize microorganisms such as bacteria, algae and enzymes to create and develop substitutes/products. Thus, chemical substitutes/manufacturing processes that are harmful for the environment are avoided. There are numerous applications where biotechnology can have an impact towards a more sustainable way of living. Nevertheless, here we are only discussing some of these areas by giving examples of industries that are transforming their activities to respect Earth’s limits:
Rising levels of greenhouse gases (i.e. Carbon Dioxide, Methane) in the atmosphere is the main cause of global warming that threatens our planet. Thus, there is an urgent need to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Biofuels are produced from biomass and provide an environment-friendly alternative solution for energy supply. Several companies invest huge amounts of money into research and development for production of biofuels. For example, ExxonMobil, a multinational oil and gas company, in collaboration with the biotech Synthetic Genomics, are working on a project towards production of biofuels from algae. In addition, the French company Global Bioenergies in collaboration with the German Automotive manufacturer Audi are working together to produce gasoline from sustainable sources such as wheat straw and wood chips.
Pollution from production and usage of plastics is a huge environmental issue. This is because plastics are products of the petrochemical industry as well as they are non-degradable which results in accumulation of vast numbers of plastic waste. In contrast, bioplastics possess very high biodegradability. Food industries such as Coca-Cola and Danone along with the plastic converter industry called ALPLA are working with biotech Avantium to develop and commercialize bioplastic bottles based on plant-based sources.
Approximately 4% of global carbon dioxide emissions are due to the fashion industry making this the second leading cause of environmental pollution, following petroleum. Not surprisingly considering that approximately 80% of clothes are either landfilled or incinerated. German biotechnology company AMSilk aims to produce spider silk protein using genetic engineering technology compared to harvesting huge amounts of spiders. What is more, the same company works with Adidas to produce the first biodegradable shoe. This product, except shoe sole, will be able to break down only within 36 hours with minimal waste to the environment.
Beauty industry has an important role in climate change, considering the tons of plastic waste from cosmetic containers as well as the high demand of unsustainable natural resources required for cosmetics’ production. For example, squalene that is used in many beauty products is derived from the liver of sharks. Fortunately, many cosmetic brands have started using squalane, which is the processed version produced from sugarcanes. Moreover, French biotechnology company Deinove is able to produce phytoene, that is an anti-aging ingredient, through fermentation of Deinococcus geothermalis bacterium.
The field of biotechnology is a rapid-growing field. Biotechnology may have the answers for many of the environmental issues we are currently facing by providing safe and efficient products with minimal environmental impact. For many, the rapid progress of biotechnology raises questions and carries worrisome risks. Nonetheless, society and the scientific community should trust scientists and support their efforts in making our planet a safer place for living. As the Afro-American activist Eldridge Cleaver once said “You are either part of the solution or you are part of the problem”.
Sources:  Purnhagen KP et al Trends in plant science. 2021 26 600-6.  Η Exxon Mobil επενδύει σε φιλόδοξο σχέδιο για βιοκαύσιμα  ALPLA Joins The Coca-Cola Company and Danone in Avantium’s PEF Bottle Development (prnewswire.com)  https://globalfashionagenda.org Ten Ways Biotechnology Makes the World More Sustainable  Deinove launches first pure phytoene for skincare
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