What do bread and messenger RNA vaccines have in common? Answer: biotechnologies! Still unknown to the general public, they are nevertheless omnipresent in our daily lives. In food first and foremost, but also in the fields of health, cosmetics, energy and even fashion. This technology opens up new ways of sustainable production for industrialists by using living organisms to create new ingredients, molecules and materials. Boosted by the health crisis, totally in line with the new expectations of “consumers” and approved by the government as part of its stimulus plan, biotechs are more than ever on the rise. Here’s a look at the breakthrough of this technology, which is paving the way to an eco-responsible future.
March 2020, in the midst of an unprecedented health crisis, governments are relying on biotechnologies to find appropriate responses to the pandemic. Among them, the Sars-Cov-2 virus screening tests – known as PCR tests (more precisely RT-PCR) – use a simple and rapid method invented by biotechnologies to exponentially amplify pieces of DNA (or RNA in the case of RT-PCR tests) in a test tube. Capable of responsiveness and innovation, biotechs, then recognized as a model of excellence, are working, almost in the shadows, on the creation of messenger RNA vaccines such as those proposed by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna. Without realizing it, the general public has become familiar with the complex terminology used by experts in the media and on TV.
However, biotechs are not only the work of researchers and scientists. During the successive confinements, thousands of families started to produce their own bread or yoghurt, or even drinks such as kefir or kombucha, not to mention beer. As an example, the Lesaffre company saw its sales of household yeast rise by 15% during the first containment of 2020. Thus, without necessarily knowing it, households have appropriated the flagship process of industrial biotechnology, namely fermentation, which consists of exploiting the properties of micro-organisms: yeast, bacteria, fungi … This return to “homemade” echoes a fundamental trend in the population, that of privileging “citizen consumption” and local consumption. Let’s understand “consume less, but better” and thus participate in sustainable development: avoid packaging, limit transportation, use renewable raw materials, be independent from industrial production during periods of fear of shortage …
Composting, increasingly carried out on a domestic scale, proceeds from the same principle: recycle green waste from the house (fruit and vegetable peelings) and the garden by piling it up so that it decomposes by transformation of the organic matter by micro-organisms.
Thus, biotechnologies are today more and more associated with the notions of ecology, health and well-being. And industrialists have not missed the boat. In the food industry, for example, many companies and researchers are looking at how to feed the entire planet in a healthy and sustainable way. Faced with the vegetarian and vegan trend, and in a concern for the preservation of animal welfare, biotechs are imagining the food of tomorrow and are already able to design meat… without animals, from stem cells! The Dutch start-up Meatable raised $47 million last March to continue the development of its synthetic pork and beef products. The impact investment company Blue Horizon Corporation estimates that this fast-growing sector will be worth $140 billion by 2030.
All sectors are affected by these changes. And manufacturers are now taking into account the new expectations of consumers by making a strong commitment to decarbonize their raw materials. The textile sector, for example, the second most polluting industry in the world, is seeing a large number of start-ups and biotech companies invest in this field. These include the American company Modern Meadow, which uses biofabrication to create sustainable materials such as leather, the Patagonia brand, which markets eco-designed technical clothing, and the French start-up Pili, which offers bio-based dyes and pigments for the textile industry. The automotive industry is not to be outdone, with Michelin, via its ResiCare entity, leading the BioImpulse project to create and develop a new adhesive resin on an industrial scale without any substances of concern. In other areas, we can mention the multinational Shell, which has just invested in the innovative company Lanzajet, which is working on a sustainable aviation fuel, or L’Oréal, which signed a licensing agreement with the Dutch biotech Micreos last October to combine their expertise in biotechnology and the skin microbiome.
Distinguished as a priority area for investment in the context of the stimulus plan, biotechs have finally been recognized as a solution for the future during the Covid-19 crisis, including by the general public. In addition to providing a response to healthcare, they have been identified as a response to major issues such as sustainable development. Indeed, they offer a wide range of applications: bio-based products, reincorporation of recycled materials, decarbonized energy, sustainable food… There is no doubt that biotechs will continue to make their mark on our daily lives in the coming years.