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How can Southern California biotechnologies help the environment?

Addressing environmental issues with biotechnologies

“As climate change looms over our future, many industries are turning to biotechnology for solutions to make all aspects of our lives more sustainable for the environment. Biotechnology is uniquely positioned to replace polluting materials and chemical processes with more sustainable, biological alternatives. This scientific field draws from millions of years of evolution in which living beings have specialized in producing and recycling all kinds of compounds and materials. These biological processes can be used to efficiently break down waste and produce materials with lower pollution, water, land, and energy use than traditional methods. The number of applications where biotechnology could make a difference towards sustainability is virtually unlimited.” This is what Clara Rodriguez Fernandez wrote to introduce her article : Ten Ways Biotechnology Makes the World More Sustainable in which she develops insights on the applications of biotechnology in bioplastics, enzymatic detergents, biofuels, cultivated meat, flavorings, construction materials, biofertilizers, biopesticides, cosmetics and clothing, to reduce these industries’ environmental impact.

But, what is concretely happening in Southern California in that perspective?

Southern California Ecosystem : a Leader in Biotechnology

Mostly known for entertainment, Southern California (which includes the ecosystems of Los Angeles and San Diego) is also a cutting-edge area in Science and Technology : the third one after Boston-Cambridge and the San Francisco bay area. In that regard, San Diego’s life sciences, healthcare and biotechnology sector is experiencing significant growth. From record fundraising for local startups and strong interest to real estate investment groups in the construction of new research spaces, this momentum is fuelled by a strong interest in the fields of life sciences, health and biotechnologies. Investing in biotech allows more and more research and innovation, and thus helps scientists to offer new solutions to existing challenges. Southern California offers many examples of startups using biotechnologie to help reduce pollution and preserve biodiversity. 

Here are some illustrations of startups that develop such technologies.

Gaiamer Biotechnologies produces biodegradable plastic products to replace petroleum-based plastic.

Everyday, billions of tons of petroleum-based plastic are generated, trashed and continue their life in nature. « By 2050, it is estimated that there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. » 

If plastic as a material harms the environment (its production is very polluting, its unending disintegration has a huge carbon print and its presence in ecosystems jeopardizes biodiversity), it is emphasized by its spread use in our everyday-life : global production of plastic has been multiplied by 190 between 1950 and 2015. 

Gaiamer Biotechnologies has created a compostable and biodegradable plant-based and petroleum-free plastic. Technically, this plant-based plastic is quite similar to oil-based resin : it can be shaped and worked as traditional plastics. They brand it to have a circular life : the soil made from compost can be used to grow new plants that will be transformed into plastic. 

Yet, the whole process (including production) may not be 100% carbon neutral at the end, since transforming and throwing always have an impact.

Read more : https://gaiamer.com/

MOZZA : Developing the science to create real dairy cheese from plants

To respond to the increasing demand on vegan cheese, Mozza is developing plant-based cheese made from the same proteins as the ones we find in cow’s milk. « And because it’s dairy cheese, it will melt like dairy cheese, stretch like dairy cheese, and taste as delicious as the mozzarella you love. », they advance.

Why is it greener? Cows emit a lot of methane, one of the most polluting of greenhouse gases. Plus, their breeding has an energy cost as a whole. Finally, the animal welfare ethical perspective may not seem directly linked to carbon impact reduction, fewer intensive livestock means more lands available for growing plants (which means more food resources because 1/ you can grow meals on the surfaces that were previously used for breeding and 2/ you do no longer have to feed the herds, so you keep the raw food directly for human food) and/or for wildlife (which reduces biodiversity jeopardy).

Read more : https://www.mozzafoods.com/ 

GENOMATICA and Asahi Kasei Partner on Renewably-Sourced Nylon 6,6

Around 2 million tons of nylon is manufactured every year. Nylon 6,6 is made of around 50% HMD (hexamethylenediamine) and 50% adipic acid. Genometica is a San Diego based startup that develops « complete, integrated process and manufacturing plant designs that use biotechnology, fermentation and renewable feedstocks to make widely-used ingredients and materials with lower carbon footprints ». 

They recently agreed to ally with the Japanese company Asahi Kasei : they will develop renewably-sourced Nylon 6,6 using the sustainable material leader Genometica’s plant-based HMD instead of fossil-fuels-based. This renewable HMD is made from sugars present in plants, and thus participates in reducing carbon emission associated with the production of Nylon 6,6. Bio-based nylon 6,6 therefore significantly reduces the use of fossil-fuels, these non-renewable resources with polluting extraction and transformation. 

Yet, the path might be long for Asahi Kasei, the worldwide provider of Material, Homes and Health Care products, to become carbon neutral…

Read more : https://www.genomatica.com/ and https://www.asahi-kasei.com/

CHROMADEX : A global bioscience company dedicated to healthy aging

ChromaDex is a provider of phytochemical standards, botanical materials, and research-grade materials for the natural products industry. 

For instance, they have discovered that nicotinamide riboside « could increase levels of NAD+, a vital function in cellular health that supports healthy aging ». This breakthrough ingredient has thus been used to develop a nutritional and therapeutic product : Niagen®, which has been « validated by extensive clinical research to be safe and effective at boosting NAD+ levels ».  

ChromaDex delivers, acquires, develops, and commercializes active ingredients such as the latter Niagen®, IMMULINA™ (a spirulina extract), and AnthOrigin™ (anthocyanins derived from water-extracted purple corn they produce on site).

Putting on the market these low-processed ingredients, ChromaDex states as a first step in the chain of making products that are healthy for the planet and for the consumers.

Read more : https://www.chromadex.com/

But is that enough?

As you can guess, Gaiamer Biotechnologies is not the only one company working on a more sustainable way to make plastic. Yet, one must wonder : what if we just stopped using single-use materials as much as possible (some fields, like medicine, can hardly totally switch to 100% reusable materials)? Plant-based plastic is a great substitution for one-use products, but converting to plastic-free lifestyle and reusable items seems better. 

We can shop more and more easily for plant-based meat and cheese that tastes like ”real” meat and cheese. It might be greener (and harmless to animals if you are sensitized to this cause), but it is still about transforming plants (extracting the molecules you need to perform these new products and processing the cooking formula). Therefore, would it not be even better to stop eating these things and enjoy the raw food Nature puts on the table? 

Yes, but how can we concretely contribute?

First, if you arrived at this point, bravo ! You are part of the ones who are willing to act. 

Of course, nobody is carbon neutral : life is intrinsically energy-intensive. But positive actions make differences : consuming less, reducing meat consumption (at least beef), buying local, avoiding plane travels and preferring public transportation to cars, using less water, recycling… and all that is also cost-saving !

To help us, Lynda Amichi and Renaud Seigneuric, the Houston team of the Office for Science and Technology at the Embassy of France in the US, gave us some tips. To celebrate Earth Day, they offered an online Café des Sciences over “the emerging topic of low-techs, with a panel at the crossroads of science and industry, at a timely moment for our Planet ». They conveyed the idea that « the main solutions proposed by states, industries and scientists are mostly based on the development of high-technology research and innovation with a multitude of complex solutions », and that « with a promise of steady and reliable performance, growth and productivity, small room is left for alternatives that consider the environmental, social, institutional and citizenship components ».

You missed the webinar? 

Do not worry ! (Houston, do you copy? Los Angeles is advertising…)

To read more about the exciting discussion in which French and American experts jointly addressed, in a first session, the reason why Low-Techs are a way to develop Sustainability, Resilience and Efficiency, and gave, in a second session, some examples of Low-Techs applications, click here.

And make sure to follow the Office for Science and Technology at the Embassy of France in the US on social media (LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter)!

Writer:

Clara Devouassoux, Deputy attachée for Science and Technology in Los Angeles, [email protected]