“Green” household cleaning products are innovating cutting-edge biotechnology to become more environmentally friendly—but criticism from “green groups” could scuttle these advances.
A liquid laundry detergent made by Ecover, a Belgian household product company, contains an oil produced by genetically altered algae. It replaces palm kernel oil, which is associated with widespread deforestation as tropical rainforests give way to palm oil plantations. In other words, Ecover’s choice to use the algae-produced oil could help preserve fragile ecosystems and protect endangered species.
“Finding a sustainable source of palm oil is, of course, difficult,” Ecover’s manager for longterm innovation Tom Domen told the New York Times. “This new oil is a more sustainable alternative from a new technology.” Ecover’s detergent is one of several products using synthetic biology and other advanced biotechnology methods to improve their sustainability profile.
But anti-GMO groups, many of which are suspicious of genetics and technology, are having nothing of it. Canada-based organization ETC group, which tracks emerging technologies, representing 16 like-minded organizations and activists (including Consumer Reports’ lead anti-GMO campaigner Michael Hansen) is campaigning for a halt in the use of ingredients produced from synthetic biology:
We are writing as representatives of several international environmental, consumer and social justice organisations to formally ask Ecover and Method to reconsider its decision to use ingredients derived from synthetic biology in its products. … Ecover announced that it would replace some of the palm oil used in its laundry detergent with algal oil produced by Solazyme Inc. of California (USA), which is derived from the fermentation of Brazilian sugarcane. As you are aware, Solazyme’s proprietary product is ‘genetically tailored oil’ fermented in vats of bioengineered algae that were created using the tools of synthetic biology – often referred to as ‘extreme genetic engineering.’
Synthetic biology is a relatively new field of research that has been around for 20 years. A general focus in the field is to produce novel biological systems tailored for specific purposes. This occurs by using techniques in genetic engineering to create new strains of microorganisms such as bacteria, yeasts and algae. Many of the methods used are similar to traditional genetic engineering, but in synthetic biology, a greater degree of manipulation is involved. For example, a method called artificial gene synthesis is commonly used, which involves designing and creating DNA on computers and inserting the new DNA into microorganisms.
Another commonly used method is to create combinations of genetic material that are not present in nature. James Collins, a prominent researcher in synthetic biology at Boston University, calls it “genetic engineering on steroids.” Because scientists are able to manipulate microorganisms to such great extents, they can potentially coax the microorganisms to produce complex, valuable molecules with applications ranging from pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, biofuels and even food. These microorganisms could replace energy-intensive chemical processes traditionally used to produce those molecules by essentially being biological “factories.”
The benefits of replacing chemical factories with microbial factories range from reducing carbon footprint to eliminating the use of toxic chemicals to replacing environmentally destructive practices altogether. In Ecover’s case, substituting palm kernel oil with algae-produced oil lowers the pressure for ongoing widespread deforestation of tropical rainforests in Indonesia, which in turn destroys wildlife habitat, releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and exacerbates climate change.
While the field of synthetic biology that takes genetic engineering of microorganisms to a higher level is new, the idea of using genetically engineered microorganisms to produce useful molecules is not. There are several successful examples where traditional, resource-consuming processes for making important products have already been replaced largely with less resource-intensive microbial processes. These include the use of fermentation-produced chymosin in cheese, in which an essential coagulant rennet is produced from genetically engineered microbes as opposed to calf stomachs, and the production of insulin for diabetics from genetically engineered microbes rather than from pigs or cows.
These production methods have both been reviewed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and passed regulations. Fermentation-produced chymosin was approved with Generally Regarded As Safe status in 1990 while biotech insulin was approved in 1982. Synthetic biology also has its own prominent success story. For example, a group of scientists led by professor Jay Keasling at the University of California Berkeley managed to coax a type of yeast to produce a precursor molecule to the anti-malarial drug artemisinin using synthetic biology. Traditionally, artemisinin is produced from a plant Artemisia artua, and global supply of the drug came almost exclusively from farmers who cultivated the plant.
The uncertainty involved with the crop success affected the availability of the drug for patients afflicted with malaria, who numbered 207 million cases worldwide in 2012. Using the yeast to produce the precursor to artemisinin greatly stabilized the supply of the drug and the method has since been approved by the World Health Organization. However, anti-GMO groups do not see the benefits associated with synthetic biology, dubbing the microorganisms Synthetically Modified Organisms, or SMOs and launching campaigns to pressure companies like Ecover to remove ingredients produced with synthetic biology from their products.
In reality, the molecular products that come from microorganisms produced using synthetic biology are no different from those harvested in crops such as palm kernels or Artemisia artua, in animals like pigs and cows, or produced from chemical processes. As Eric Sawyer comments in Scitable, a Nature Education blog: “Cells really are little factories, and they are amazingly efficient at what they do.”
XiaoZhi Lim is a freelance journalist and former GLP editor and writer.