Reports about biotechnology that we see in the media love to discuss the most sophisticated, cutting-edge advances taking place in the sector: everything from 3D vaccines to living, biohybrid robots. But although this might make you think that biotechnology is a futuristic science that has little to do with your life right now, nothing could be further from the truth.
The fact is that today, more and more ordinary consumer products are being made or improved using industrial biotech processes—processes that not only help bring us better products, but can also have significant benefits for the environment. Read on for a closer look at nine everyday consumer products you may not have known were brought to you by industrial biotechnology.
Under old manufacturing processes, store-bought bread relied on potassium bromate to serve as a preservative and a dough-strengthening agent. However, at certain levels, this compound is a suspected cause of cancer. But thanks to genetically enhanced microorganisms produced by industrial biotech, new, non-carcinogenic baking enzymes strengthen the dough, boost the bread’s rise, and prolong freshness on the shelf.
Also known as riboflavin, vitamin B2 is an important component in helping the body convert the food we eat into energy-producing fuel and in fighting cell-damaging particles called free radicals. But synthesizing vitamin B2 using pre-biotech processes previously involved a complex, nine-step process that relied on many toxic chemicals and produced significant quantities of hazardous waste. Today, industrial biotech has engineered a special genetically enhanced microbe that transforms vitamin B2 synthesis into a one-step fermentation process that requires common natural ingredients such as vegetable oil and sugar to serve as feedstock and nutrients.
Unfortunately, cosmetics are notorious for their heavy use of petroleum products. Petroleum jelly (a semi-solid mixture of hydrocarbons) and mineral oil (a by-product of petroleum distillation) are just two of the fossil fuel-sourced ingredients used in the traditional manufacture of items like lipstick and foundation. However, a chemical biotech process called metathesis now allows renewable vegetable oils to be converted into suitable substitutes for petroleum-based ingredients. This helps decrease fossil fuel dependence and eliminate toxic byproducts; additionally, many consumers report that cosmetics made this way have a smoother, less greasy feel.
Historically, many household laundry detergents relied on phosphates, minerals that contribute to water pollution, for their heavy-duty cleaning and brightening powers. Now, genetically enhanced microbes and fungi have been engineered to produce cleansing enzymes like lipases, which remove grease stains. Thanks to these enzymes, laundry water is phosphate-free, and clothes can be washed at a lower temperature so both consumers and the environment can benefit from energy savings.
Many textiles produced from cotton undergo a harsh bleaching process, typically with chlorine or chemical peroxide, during their transformation into a finished fabric. But a biochemical form of peroxide can now be produced using bioengineered cellulose enzymes, which allow textiles to be bleached at a lower temperature and within a neutral pH range. The resulting fabrics are softer, more easily dyed, and less harmful for the environment.
The process of transforming wood chips into the pulp used for paper manufacturing previously involved boiling the chips in a harsh chemical solution to break them down. But once again, genetically enhanced microbes come to the rescue in the industrial biotech version of the process. These microbes have been engineered to produce enzymes with wood-bleaching properties that naturally degrade wood cell walls during pulping. This greatly reduces the amount of harmful chemical waste produced by traditional paper manufacturing.
Carpet that is made from nylon fibers is yet another example of how pervasive petroleum products are in our everyday life. Traditionally, a chemical reaction was used to synthesize nylon from petroleum, but now, we have discovered how to produce 1,3 propanediol using genetically enhanced microbes. These new fibers are softer, more elastic, and more durable, and also offer permanent resistance to stains and UV rays.
How would you feel if you knew your car tires were made from sugar? That’s one of the key ingredients in BioIsoprene, a new form of synthetic rubber that is produced when genetically engineered microorganisms ferment sugars from renewable sources. Given their high purity, low cost, and low environmental impact, these sugars are a much more beneficial base for synthetic rubber than the conventional main ingredient: petroleum.
Thanks to industrial biotech, synthetic rubber isn’t the only place where sugar is standing in for petroleum products. Traditionally, natural gas liquids have been used to synthesize polyethylene—better known to us as the base material for a host of plastic film products, including disposable plastic shopping bags. However, these liquids are being replaced in industrial biotech processes by ethanol, which is generated from the fermentation of sugar and converted to a polyethylene through heat processing and mixing. This brings the double benefit of reducing the use of fossil fuels, and producing bioplastic products that can be fully biodegradable.