Biotechnology can eliminate the need for endangered trees to be used for cosmetics

Engineering greener beauty products

Image credit: Amyris Biology

More consumers hope to purchase beauty products that are natural, sustainable and animal-free. Could bioengineering be the solution?

The process of fermentation has been used to make alcohol for thousands of years. Now, thanks to developments in bioengineering, the same process – where a microbe such as yeast interacts with a sugar molecule – is being used to create large quantities of ingredients used in the beauty industry.

This is important as rare natural ingredients can be squandered to make creams, while some ingredients damage the environment. For example, squalene, which is used in moisturiser, is traditionally collected from the livers of sharks, contributing to millions being killed every year.

To solve this environmental problem, and many others, Californian company Amyris genetically engineers yeast and ferments, or feeds, it with sustainably sourced sugarcane, to produce natural, high-performance molecules. Remarkably, these molecules can replicate the molecular structure of natural ingredients from non-sustainable resources or be used to create novel ones. But it’s not easy.

“A common challenge in fermentation-based manufacturing is selecting the right manufacturing strain that will best support the production of the target molecule,” says Dr Sunil Chandan, chief science officer and head of research and development at Amyris.

‘A common challenge in fermentation-based manufacturing is selecting the right manufacturing strain that will best support the production of the target molecule.’

Dr Sunil Chandan, Amyris

The company develops molecules for manufacture in its Lab-To Market platform. Scientists start with automated DNA design and strain design to identify ‘winner’ strains with high fermentation yield and productivity.

Engineers create molecules with yeast, effectively programming them like a computer. They have even invented a Genotype Specification Language (GSL), which is a DNA programming language-based design tool invented to speed up the design of molecules.

Scientists used to rely on handheld pipettes for bioengineering, which required more time and resources, and left more room for inconsistencies. Now, the company uses high-throughput screening (HTS) to rapidly screen hundreds of thousands of possible strains. Artificial intelligence is used to expedite the process for selecting the best strain to take to manufacturing. “HTS is a critical component for bringing fermentation-based products from the lab to market, and doing so efficiently and effectively,” Chandan explains.

Throughout this process, data is captured and analysed by humans as well as by machine learning to improve and accelerate development. The company’s Lab-to-Market system enables it to scale production from two litres to 200,000 litres of a target molecule.

By using bioengineered yeast fed on sugarcane to follow a sequence of chemical reactions that occur in a living organism, the biotech company has created a library of natural molecules that can be used as ingredients for everything from sweeteners for drinks, to cosmetics and fragrances. Here are some of those in its portfolio.


All plants and animals make squalene, a fatty molecule that strengthens and hydrates the skin’s moisture barrier, but deep-water sharks make lots of it for buoyancy, which is why they are hunted for this skincare ingredient, which can still be found in some products today. Thankfully, big brands have moved to cruelty-free, plant-derived alternatives including squalane. Amyris used its synthetic biology platform to engineer and ferment yeast with sugarcane to create sustainable Neossance Squalane and estimates the product saves two million sharks every year.


Bisabolol is a calming ingredient used in skincare that is traditionally extracted from either the German chamomile or, more commonly, the endangered Brazilian Candeia tree. But biotechnology provides a more sustainable, reliable, and cost-effective alternative. While it takes on average 12 years to grow a new Candeia tree, and a tonne of plant material to collect just 7kg of bisabolol, using sustainable sugarcane as a feedstock and biotechnology takes 230 times less agricultural land to produce the same amount of bisabolol compared to the endangered Brazilian Candeia tree.


Silicone is a common ingredient in shampoo, but silicone-based compounds such as D5 are bad for the environment and potentially for hair, stopping moisturising ingredients from penetrating the hair shaft. So Amyris developed Neossance Hemisqualane, which has heat-protection qualities and has received a lot of press coverage as the star ingredient in American hairdresser Jonathan Van Ness’s new line of eco-friendly hair products.


Sandalwood is used in many perfumes and is tied to Indian culture. While it has traditionally been gathered with great respect, population growth has boosted demand for the essential oil, which is harvested from mature trees at least 30 years old. Over decades, the trees have been over-harvested, so the supply has dwindled. Now, it’s incredibly expensive and the tree is a threatened species. Amyris makes a sustainable sandalwood-type oil that’s a scalable alternative to the endangered botanical source, and only uses one-tenth of as much land as the real deal.

Amyris Pilotplant1

Image credit: Amyris

Amyris says its synthetic biology platform can rapidly and sustainably produce virtually any molecule that exists in nature and take it from lab to market with unlimited applications. It has already commercialised 13 ingredients, used by the likes of L’Oréal and Estée Lauder, and has built up its own range of sustainable consumer brands, including Biossance, of which actress Reese Witherspoon is an ambassador. The company is developing a pipeline to explore future molecules and applications and says it can access over half of all small molecule diversity in nature.

John G Melo, president, CEO and director of Amyris, believes ‘clean chemistry’ (a term that is loathed by some) will be found in more consumer products as eco-minded customers demand more natural and sustainable solutions. “Our future growth is about more molecules, into more products, and used at higher rates in each application, much like the Apple business model of getting the operating system in the device in your hands and then becoming your everything from music to your source of movies to your connectivity and your productivity tools,” he explains. This means that just as fermentation revolutionised food and beverages thousands of years ago, it could once again change what we consume daily.

While the engineering behind skincare products can only be seen under a microscope, it could have a massive impact by providing alternative sustainable ingredients that help to protect endangered species and our planet’s precious biodiversity.


Sugarcane as a cosmetic feedstock

Sugarcane may be a food crop, but it is also a rapidly renewable resource that with careful farming, should meet everyone’s needs. Compared to alternatives, it’s a green option for creating ingredients for the beauty industry.

Amyris requires less than 0.1 per cent of a hectare of sugarcane to produce 1kg of squalane. To obtain the same amount of shark-derived squalene, it would require three sharks to be killed.

Sugarcane crops renew themselves on an annual basis, but it takes a shark 10 years to grow to maturity, when its liver is large enough to be ‘harvested’ for squalene. This shows how devasting using this cosmetic ingredient is when sourced from the vulnerable shark population.

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