The Biomimicry Column

Toward a safer national chemicals policy

ShutterstockEarly Spring

Author Ken Geiser was just in the San Francisco Bay Area, promoting his excellent new book, "Chemicals Without Harm: Policies for a Sustainable World," and he took time out from his busy speaking schedule to join an invited group of 26 graduate students from our Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry (BCGC) program at UC Berkeley.

Geiser is a professor emeritus of work environment at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, founder and past codirector of the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production and an expert in worker safety, toxic control policy and green chemistry. He is also the author of a standard in the field, "Material Matters: Toward a Sustainable Materials Policy."

His message was simple but challenging: “The economy that supports us and offers hope to millions of people around the world is based on hazardous chemicals. We need a Safer Chemicals Policy.”

Geiser then went on to outline six steps toward this goal for the U.S.:

1. Set national goals and plans: Set a date to be free of manufactured hazardous chemicals and establish interim goals for those that pose the most risk to human health or the environment. This first objective, of course, relies on a unified national political will to do so, and although Geiser is not optimistic about the current political climate in Washington, he does believe that this could be accomplished.

2. Characterize and classify all chemicals: This classification would be framed by relative threat or concern, and Geiser proposes a five-part system: preferred chemicals, chemicals of three levels of concern and those chemicals of unknown concern. Each group would require an appropriate level of creation, use and review.

3. Generate and make accessible chemical information: One of the biggest stumbling blocks to controlling the health hazards posed by manufactured chemicals is the lack of information about what products are made of. Tools for testing, screening, modeling and estimating must be expanded and developed, and as important, it would seem to me, put into standard use accepted by all stakeholders.

4. Accelerate substitution with safer alternatives: Not only do we need to understand the potential harm of existing substances, but we must also define what a "good" alternative is. In other words, develop the criteria for benign materials and efficient pathways to stream them into use.

5. Create safer llternatives: To do this requires an investment in people and facilities to do the work. Geiser sees three main pillars of building such a capacity: regional green chemistry and engineering centers; expanded research funding; and redesigned secondary and post-secondary education programs.

6. Reconstruct government capacity: Action is needed at the federal level and Geiser believes that new regulations and standards should be promulgated, that the current Chemical Control Statutes should be reformed and that a new Chemicals Agency should be established.

His is an ambitious and sweeping plan, almost as breathtaking as the amount of chemicals produced in the United States in one year, most of which we know nothing or little about, and even less of which is regulated in any effective way. His approach represents a shift away from post-production control, cleanup and punishment, to a more proactive creation of better alternatives. To accomplish this, admittedly, would require some across-the-board changes in the institutions now influencing chemical control in the U.S.  

The role of biology in a new paradigm

Biomimetics has a part to play in this shifting paradigm, most notably in step 5, the creation of alternatives. One particular sector of biomimetics, biotechnology, or the use of biological organisms or processes to make things, is already a large and growing part of the industrial economy. It represented $353 billion of the U.S. economy in 2012, or about 2.2 percent of GDP.

The 2013 review, "Disruptive Technologies: Advances that Will Transform Life, Business, and the Global Economy" from McKinsey Global Institute, estimates that synthetic biology and the industrialization of biology will provide a disruptive set of technologies with an economic impact of at least $100 billion by 2025.

Biotechnology can include both bio-utilization — the use of yeast as a fermentation agent, for example — and bio-inspired design, in which principles from biological processes are transferred to technological procedures.

Several developments will continue to accelerate this sector’s growth, according to the 2015 report "Industrialization of Biology: A Roadmap to Accelerate the Advanced Manufacturing of Chemicals" by the National Academies Press.

Among them are advances in DNA sequencing, bioinformatics and cell profiling, the availability of DNA components for inclusion into cells, the compilation of enzyme lists of synthesized and functionally characterized materials, and the improvement of modeling and visualization tools for more precise engineering.

One company that exemplifies this growing trend toward biologically based chemical manufacture is Amyris of Emeryville, California. Amyris was founded in 2003, with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a grant to create a better pathway to a treatment for malaria. The company has gone on to produce a multitude of products: cleansers; cosmetics; lubricants; fuels; polymers; solvents; and pharmaceuticals.

This is a wide range of products for a company and that is because of the technology that the company uses. It is creating things at the molecular level, using the basic building blocks of DNA, and so the resultant products can be of a wide variety: maximum diversity from minimum components, something nature does very well.

The company also exemplifies the blurring lines between synthetic biology, biomimetics and bioutilization. It splices DNA parts from its library into sequences that are placed into yeast cells. These DNA codes change the metabolism of the yeast organism, shifting cell production away from making biomass to making the chemical chosen by the designers. Modified yeast cells are then assessed for performance and best performers are sent to production facilities.

At the production facilities the yeast culture is placed in fermentation tanks with water and sugars for food and the cells begin producing the desired substance. This "broth" is drawn down periodically as more nutrients are added and the final product spun down. This process typically takes two to three weeks in a 200,000-liter tank.

Their advanced and relatively fast "proofreading" of the DNA pathway codes created by their engineers is what sets the company on the frontier of a bio-based production revolution. Automation of testing has made millions of iterations possible. Another advantage that sets them apart is the precise bioinformatics that allow monitoring of these millions of culture iterations run in the lab.

The company is therefore both speeding up its production cycles and adjusting formulations in tolerances of fractions of percentage points. For example, it can now transition from a two-liter test batch to the 200,000-liter commercial tank with full confidence and without the need for interim test batches.

After its initial success with the synthetic production of Artemisinin, the malaria treatment, the company turned to the manufacture of fuels from sugars in 2007. Using sugar cane as a feedstock it was able to produce a version of farnesene. This is a 15-carbon, long-chain, branched, unsaturated hydrocarbon. Its product, Biofene, can be converted into a diesel-like fuel and used for other products such as cosmetics, synthetic rubber and lubricants. A production facility is operating in Brazil under the management of the French multinational corporation Total.

Biofuels are not now competitive in price with petroleum, but should market drivers change, Biofene will be among the formulations looked to for both profit and sustainability. The company has diversified its product line to buffer itself somewhat from the vicissitudes of the oil and gas market. It also has received funding from the Living Foundries program of DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Program Agency of the U.S. Department of Defense.

One of the more successful of these products is a patented emollient, Neossance Squalane, made from a sugar cane base. Neossance Squalane is used in over 400 cosmetic products sold by other companies. Ross Eppler, associate director of commercial operations, reckons that it now services 30 to 35 percent of the market after three years of production.

This product replaces naturally derived squalane, long used as a moisturizer. Squalane is hydrogenated squalene which, in turn, is present in human sebum, the mixture of lipids in skin glands. It traditionally has been gotten from shark livers or olives. This harvesting has meant the killing of millions of sharks annually, a potentially ecosystem-destroying practice. Nearly eliminated in European and U.S. products, shark squalene is still found in over half of the Asian products tested by the Bloom Association.

Derek McPhee, senior director of technology strategy, explained that the company is continually looking to gain efficiencies in automation and balancing the best aspects of the approaches of the chemist and the biologist in designing its production line, choosing which works best. He said that its "factories now fit in a vial," and indeed the result of this intense and highly technical research and testing does fit in a small glass container which is frozen and mailed off to a production facility where it is added to a huge vat of water and sugar and set to work.

Genetic modification is not without its cautionary tales and we would be naïve to think that it does not need careful scrutiny. Nevertheless, biotechnology is a powerful tool to make alternative materials, is a growing segment of our economy and is one of the more promising parts of the paradigm shift to making benign materials from the start, rather than trying to control hazardous materials after they have been made.