As a biodiversity-conscious woman of a certain age, I frequently have moral arguments with myself over the contents of my bathroom vanity cabinet. I don’t wear much makeup, but I’m obsessed with keeping my skin hydrated and therein lies the rub (literally) — my concern over not just the packaging but the ingredients within the various moisturizers and serums that I kind of worship. One of the most potentially problematic items: squalane.
I am willing to bet not many of my moisturizer-loving peers know that for more than 100 years, a significant source for much of the squalane oil in beauty brands has been shark liver oil. According to various advocate groups, about 60 shark species are still hunted for this express purpose, about half of which are listed on the IUCN Red List as vulnerable to extinction. All to fix my face? I think not.
A primary alternative source for plant-based squalane is olive oil, which bodes well from an agroproduction standpoint, as it is a relatively low-water crop. But the personal care industry also needs other sources, which brings me to the real point of this column, the promise of synthetic biotechnology (a.k.a. synbio).
One brand you can find in my cabinet stash is Biossance, which I bought because of its self-declared shark-friendliness. The company uses squalane derived from bioengineered yeast that is fed on responsibly sourced sugar cane and is also free of parabens. In fact, Biossance is the house brand for Amyris, a publicly traded synbio company on pace to generate more than $200 million in revenue in 2022.
About 60 shark species are still hunted for their squalane, about half of which are listed on the IUCN Red List as vulnerable to extinction.
Amyris reported $194 million for the first nine months of last year; its ingredients — squalane is just one of 13 it sells, but was the original catalyst — are used in more than 20,000 products including its own and those of other brands. The company recently launched several new brands, including Stripes, a menopause wellness brand launched in collaboration with Naomi Watts, and 4U by Tia, a natural hair care line sold exclusively at Walmart.
But most of Amyris’ sales are to other companies seeking to replace questionable substances for social or environmental reasons. For example, it is teaming with fragrance company Firmenich to create bio-based versions of its formulations, and it also manufactures the sustainable sweeteners used by Nick’s Ice Cream. "We help them deliver on their promises to their consumers," Amyris Chief Engagement and Sustainability Officer Beth Bannerman told me when we chatted last fall.
Amyris is just one company in the synbio niche, which is projected to surpass $61 billion in revenue by 2030, a compound annual growth rate of more than 23.1 percent between 2021 and the end of the decade. That number includes all the sector-specific applications that benefit from the technology, most notably ones linked to the pharmaceutical industry, but this segment’s implications for corporate sustainability are becoming more visible.
Synbio advances are responsible, for example, for the products being created by alternative protein makers such as Impossible Foods and Nature’s Fynd. And it’s a growing obsession of the chemicals industry, as consumer product companies move to reduce their reliance on petroleum and toxic substances.
Amyris is an example of that shift, as is Evolved By Nature, which raised $120 million last year to scale up its product, Activated Silk, a bio-based replacement for certain petrochemicals in skincare. A new skincare line from Michael Strahan uses Evolved By Nature’s polypeptide. The technology was inspired by silkworms.
If you fall down the biotech rabbit hole, you’ll discover a growing number of big consumer products companies are touting the use of ingredients (albeit for maybe just one product line) that rely on materials made possible by synbio. One quick example is Reebok, which works with former DuPont biomaterials business Covation to source synbio material alternatives for its running shoes.
Another synbio poster-child capturing headlines is upstart biofuel maker LanzaTech, which recently launched a biosystems design project with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Northwestern University and Yale. The focus is on using genome engineering and machine learning to scale approaches that turn carbon dioxide into fuel or "chemical intermediates that are currently made by petrochemical resources."
Aside from the ethical concerns and considerations associated with genetic engineering in general, the biggest obstacle standing in the way of synbio scale is building up the production capacity. To address this, Amyris uses a vertical integration approach, exemplified by its new "precision fermentation" plant in Brazil opened in August. The facility, near the company’s sugarcane suppliers, can produce all of the company’s ingredients including natural vanilin, sugarcane-based Reb M, squalene, squalane, hemisqualene and patchouli. It will significantly ramp up the company’s capacity after several years of operating under "third-party capacity supply constraints," according to the company. As Bannerman told me last fall: "We are not going to move markets if there is a green premium."
A growing number of big consumer products companies are touting the use of ingredients that rely on materials made possible by synbio.
President Joe Biden issued an executive order last fall intended to advance U.S. biotechnology and biomanufacturing. The executive action includes a policy to embed ethics and equity principles in the development of this industry, and is accompanied by a pledge of $2 billion to fund these initiatives, including $1 billion from the Department of Defense over the next five years to establish a domestic bioindustrial manufacturing base.
"As companies continue to shift to biologically based processes or develop novel bioproducts, the bioeconomy is poised for enormous growth over the coming decades," wrote the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology in December. "With this revolution comes great opportunity: desirable new jobs for skilled workers, a reduced carbon footprint, and new products that will expand U.S. manufacturing and accelerate our economy, all with the potential to enhance access to these benefits in underserved regions of the country."
One of the more potentially exciting areas of synbio innovation centers on the use of enzymes engineered to break down plastics, with the goal of making waste easier to reuse. This deserves more research on my part, but some emerging players that have come to the attention of our Circularity team include Protein Evolution, Samsara Eco and Carbios, which is already aligned with companies including Patagonia and Puma. (What is it about synbio and athletic shoes?) A topic for a future article, so ping me at [email protected], if you have ideas to contribute.