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There’s Biotechnology in Soap? Should I Be Worried?

June 9, 2014
On May 30th, 2014 the New York Times released an article entitled “Companies Quietly Apply Biofuel Tools to Household Products.” This title is intentionally alarming to readers because it sounds like biotech companies are secretly sneaking genetic strains into everyday consumer products. But this is even more alarming to BIO because the author failed to do her homework on how the science works.  BIO has for years been touting the fact that biotechnology applications are used to improve everyday consumer products like laundry detergent and soap, which saves energy for consumers, and reduces pollutant in our environment.

The New York Times discusses a liquid laundry detergent made by Ecover. Ecover is a Belgian-based company that uses algal oil extract (made by California-based Solazyme) in place of palm oil in some of their products, like Unilever with their Lux bar soaps. Solazyme uses well-developed biotechnology processes to grow strains for microalgae that grow in the dark and feed on polysaccharides (long chains of sugar, like starch or cellulose from plants). The alga metabolizes the sugars and produces oil that can be extracted and used for many purposes. Ecover chose this process because palm oil is not readily available, and is expensive and Solazyme designed these algae to produce oils of the highest purity and performance while also reducing its environmental footprint—so it is a green product and is promoting sustainability, despite the New York Times article’s claims.

Synthetic Biology is a term that people may have heard but probably can’t fully define. It describes the endeavor to synthesize molecules, such as DNA which are incorporated in microbes which are programmed to provide everyday products, Synthetic biology is a tool within industrial biotechnology, which harnesses biological processes, such as fermentation and metabolic pathways, to convert sugars and other organic energy into chemicals or proteins to make biofuels, renewable chemicals and plastics, oils, paints, everyday household products, fragrances, cosmetics, and more.

DNA is composed of four alternating nucleic acids; so the structure of DNA is relatively simple and can be stored in computer code and replicated. Synthetic biologists use chemical reactions, along with computer databases of genomic information, as a way to build new DNA sequences that can be put in living cells, which then generate useful proteins for enzymes.

Scientists have been studying DNA for centuries, dating all the way back to Gregor Mendel’s time; the father of genetics. Scientists like Watson and Crick (who described the first model of DNA) seek to understand genetic information to help the world become a better place.  There are long-established regulations for biotechnology already in place.

Since Synthetic Biology is a tool in biotechnology, it has to undergo the same regulations as other biotech processes generating consumer products, which include approval from the FDA for food applications or the EPA for marketing new chemicals for industrial uses. The U.S. government regulates products derived from synthetic biology and not the process used to make the consumer product.  The public and private sector scientists and organizations alike voluntarily follow NIH guidelines for synthetic biology derived products, and this becomes mandatory with federal funding. Most industrial biotechnology companies have even stricter internal guidelines than NIH voluntary guidelines.  As of now, both private and public institutions agree that there is an established regulatory process that provides enough oversight to ensure public safety while promoting scientific innovation; which the industry calls the Coordinated Framework.

I really hope that in the future media and anti-biotech activist stop providing fear as a tactic to raise awareness on the topic.