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Cosmetics: when biotech is better than nature

Biotech companies find success with sustainably sourced ingredients for the beauty market

Biotech-derived beauty ingredients are increasingly reaching mass markets through big retailers driven, in part, by consumer demand. Consumers are clamoring for animal-free, ethically sourced and environmentally friendly ingredients in their personal-care products. This has pushed cosmetics companies to seek alternative sources for their ingredients, and some are recognizing biotech as a solution.

Tope sharks have been fished almost to extinction, in part to satisfy the needs of the beauty industry. Credit: Charles Hood / Alamy Stock Photo

Biotech start-ups see in cosmetics an untapped market with growing opportunities and a low regulatory bar. “You can innovate much more quickly,” says Nick Ouzounov, chief technology officer at Geltor, comparing skin-care and cosmetics with the food, fuel and medicine sectors. “The speed to market and the evolution of the market really happen in quarters or maybe a year,” compared with the decade or more that it often takes to develop other biotech products, he says.

In the United States, companies don’t need pre-market approval before launching a cosmetic or dietary supplement product as they would to launch a drug or many devices.

This combination of less intensive capital investment, faster innovation cycles and consumer demand has brought a growing number of biotech players to the beauty space (Table 1). Amyris, a biotech company based in Emeryville, California, owns eight different brands of cosmetics, skin-care and haircare products, many of them sold at US retail chains Target and Sephora. Geltor, based in San Leandro, California, makes ingredients for popular skin-care brands, such as AHC in Korea and Watsons in Hong Kong. These companies say they can provide cosmetic ingredients that are the same or better than those extracted from animals or petrochemical processes, and at a far lower environmental cost.

Table 1 Select biotech companies making beauty products

But biotech beauty companies face the challenge of having to match or beat the efficacy and price point of existing products — and that requires scaling up. “It has to be cost competitive, it has to have the best performance, and it has to have the best sustainability profile,” says Annie Tsong, chief strategy officer of products & ingredients at Amyris.

One of the earliest commercial success stories in biotech beauty was hyaluronic acid made through microbial fermentation. The molecule moisturizes skin, reduces wrinkles and can be injected as a dermal filler (it also has medical applications). For decades, the molecule was sourced from rooster combs, but in 1988 scientists at Savient Pharmaceuticals described a fermentation route using Streptococcus zooepidemicus.

Over the course of two decades, companies began developing their own fermentation methods using native and engineered microbes, such as Bacillus subtilis. The demand for hyaluronic acid in skin-care products has since exploded, and companies such as Evonik in Essen, Germany; HTL Biotechnology in Javene, France; Givaudan in Vernier, Switzerland; and DSM in Kaiseraugst, Switzerland now supply a bioreactor-produced version of the ingredient.

The metabolic engineering success was a turning point. It gave the biotech beauty industry a solid precedent for going forward with other fermentation-derived cosmetic ingredients. Multinational corporations, such as Procter & Gamble, are devoting resources to this type of science, but “the most rapid innovation is currently coming from new startups that are dedicated in one area,” says Fiona Mischel, director of international outreach at Built with Biology in London.

The top focus for these startups is ingredients traditionally sourced unsustainably from animals or petrochemical processes. “Consumers want to be more sustainable and they’re becoming more aware and doing research around what goes into a product,” says Stephanie Michelsen, founder of Jellatech, a biotech startup in Raleigh, North Carolina. “That puts pressure on companies to find alternatives that are sustainable, and I think that’s where biotechnology has so many answers.”

For example, the organic compound squalene, a moisturizing skin-care ingredient and an adjuvant in vaccines, is conventionally sourced from the livers of deep sea sharks. Following public outcry, companies have increasingly looked for alternative sources of the ingredient. The European Union in 2019 prohibited fishing of certain deep sea sharks sought for their squalene, placing more pressure on cosmetics.

“It’s a pretty devastating industry from the perspective of biodiversity of these really important apex predators,” says Tsong at Amyris. The company makes squalane, a hydrogenated relative of squalene that is more stable when exposed to oxygen.

Tsong estimates that previously, at least three million sharks were killed each year for their squalene. She bases this estimate on the market size for squalene (2,500–4,000 tonnes per year) and the amount of squalene that can be retrieved from a single shark liver (up to 700 g). Tsong says Amyris has replaced most of that market, producing> 2,000 tonnes each year.

To make squalane, the company employs a combination of chemical conversion processes and the fermentation of a modified strain of the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. In modifying the yeast, Amyris scientists overexpressed native enzymes, introduced a farnesene synthase taken from a plant isoprenoid pathway and improved its catalytic capacity, re-engineered the central metabolism of the microbe so that it could perform these functions with less carbon and oxygen input, and introduced a genetic switch to control the system’s production.

In all, according to Amyris, company scientists altered ~1% of the genome of Saccharomyces cerevisiae. With these modifications, the yeast produce β-farnesene, a sesquiterpene that Amyris chemically converts to squalane in a series of steps. Amyris provides squalane to mainstream beauty brands and also incorporates it into its own products under its self-launched skin-care brands Biossance and Pipette.

Amyris is one of several microbial fermentation companies that set out to produce molecules for other industries and by a circuitous route ended up in beauty. Others include the company formerly known as Solazyme, which was founded in 2003 with the goal of using algae to produce fuel, but later shifted its focus to food, nutrition and personal care.

Amyris is one of several microbial fermentation companies that set out to produce molecules for other industries and by a circuitous route ended up in beauty.

In Amyris’s case, the company had a successful start in the pharmaceutical space with a fermentation process for producing the antimalarial artemisinin. It then shifted to algal biofuels in the mid- to late 2000s, but couldn’t compete with the price of fuel when crude oil prices dropped in 2015. The company has since successfully pivoted to high-value ingredients for fragrances, cosmetics, food flavorings and specialty chemicals.

“If you look at companies that survived after the biofuel collapse in the mid-2000s, all of them switched over to cosmetics and pharmaceuticals,” says Ouzounov at Geltor. “That’s why in our case, we thought cosmetics would be the best place to have a quick impact.”

Through fermentation, Geltor produces customized collagen and elastin — cosmetic products that aim to protect, moisturize and bring elasticity to the skin. Collagen is conventionally extracted from the bones and skins of boiled animal carcasses. Despite its being animal-sourced, consumer demand for this ingredient is growing, Ouzounov says, so several biotech companies are working on alternatives.

Geltor has not disclosed its technical process. Ouzounov says the company engineers ribosomal pathways and amino acid secretion machinery in undisclosed microbes to optimize protein production. “You want to optimize your organism so that you have as much energy going towards protein production, but not so much that you’re pushing the organism to a point of death,” he says.

Rather than marketing directly to consumers, Geltor sells its ingredients to established East Asian brands as well as other undisclosed brands sold at US retailers, including Sephora, Ulta Beauty and Target.

Cambrium in Berlin is also targeting collagen as a first product, which it manufactures through fermentation. The ingredient differs from animal-derived collagen in that it is optimized for functionality on human skin, according to the company. This is one of the great advantages of biotech-derived ingredients: they are not limited to what can be extracted from nature.

Cambrium aims to develop a range of nature-identical, nature-inspired and newly designed ingredients using a digital platform that custom-designs proteins to meet performance specifications. With a design in hand, the company’s researchers then engineer microorganisms to produce that protein.

Jellatech also produces collagen, but instead of employing microbes to produce it, the company cultures mammalian cells in bioreactors. The process is similar to that of the cultured meat industry. The company starts with a harmless biopsy from an animal. These cell lines grow and produce collagen in bioreactors with the help of growth factors, signaling molecules and other ingredients. The collagen is then extracted and purified.

The company grows collagen with all the complexities of native collagen from both humans and live animals — bovine, marine, porcine or any other species. Rob Schutte, head of science at Jellatech, says, “there’s a lot of architecture built into a mammalian cell that less complex organisms such as yeast and bacteria don’t have, and that architecture is what allows our collagen to be bio-identical to animal-derived collagen.”

But as in the technological challenges facing the cultured-meat industry, scaling up remains a hurdle. It’s “an uphill battle,” says Mischel. “These mammalian cells wandering around together in a bioreactor — they’re so fragile,” and, as is well known in biopharmaceutical manufacturing, they don’t proliferate as easily as yeast and bacteria, she says.

Despite the challenges, the path to market for cosmetics is fairly quick and straightforward. In the United States, companies don’t need pre-market approval before launching a cosmetic or dietary supplement product as they would to launch a drug or many devices. Instead, they follow guidance from federal regulators and standards set by groups, such as the Personal Care Product Council. Regulators have the authority to ban or restrict ingredients on the market that are found to be unsafe.

The environmental benefits of biotech will help the industry tell a powerful story. After all, animal slaughter and environmental destruction is in many ways antithetical to the concept of beauty. Says Mischel: “We wish to be beautiful, but not at the expense of harming others.”

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Waltz, E. Cosmetics: when biotech is better than nature. Nat Biotechnol 40, 626–628 (2022).

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