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Trips to the Biotech Frontier: Episode 1

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Kashaf Momin

Research & Publications Intern

What comes to your mind when you hear the word “biotechnology?” Do you tend to think of genetically modified corn or lab-grown meat? Have you ever thought of bricks grown from bacteria or leather bags made from mushroom roots as biotechnology?

Genetically engineered food is one popular form of biotechnology, but the possible products of biotechnology are expanding rapidly beyond food and agriculture, transforming a variety of other industries, such as construction and clothing.

Here are four new and emerging applications of biotechnology that you might have never considered.

Kraig Biocraft Laboratories has created Dragon Silk™, a synthetic “spider silk.” Contrary to its description, the product does not use any spiders and has greater strength and flexibility than commercial grade silk. The company uses genetically engineered silkworms, which are bred using a unique combination of spider silk protein and silkworm protein, to create Dragon Silk™. Because of its flexibility and strength, the U.S Army is currently testing the fabric’s potential for use in protective apparel for soldiers.

Spider web

Instead of designing protective gear, Bolt Threads has produced unisex ties from its own synthetic spider silk. But this startup’s textile innovations do not stop there. Without the use of any animals, the company has also designed a tote bag from a leather alternative that has better moisture protection properties than synthetic leather. This durable leather-like material, called Mylo, is made of mycelium, the underground root structure of mushrooms that grows faster than animal hides.

Another startup is growing these mushroom roots to function as bricks. Biohm uses food waste to create biomaterials, one of which is made of mycelium. To create these bricks, mycelia are fed agricultural and food waste and then grown in large sheets or blocks. The living element is then killed to produce a fire-resistant material with high structural integrity and excellent insulating properties. Edible mushrooms, which are sold to local restaurants, are the only byproduct from this process.

Another sustainable building materials startup, bioMASON, injects microorganisms with sand in an aqueous solution to create bricks and other construction materials. This process is not only faster than the traditional kiln-fired process, but it also releases zero carbon emissions because it does not require fuel or heat. Moreover, the nutrients needed to grow the biocementTM based construction materials can be derived from renewable sources or extracted from industrial waste streams. 

Mushrooms

These products are not only novel uses of biotechnology, but they can also promote a circular economy and more sustainable models for industry. The nature-based building materials can help reduce carbon emissions produced by the energy-intensive cement industry and promote a circular economy by diverting food waste. Likewise, Bolt Threads' plant-based materials have the potential to reduce the environmental impact of growing cattle while avoiding the nondegradable nature of synthetic fibers.

Given the far-reaching potential of biotechnology, wouldn’t it be cool if you could discover all the new biotech products being developed, with applications beyond what we might traditionally consider, in a central location? Well, now there is!

The futurebioengineeredproducts.org website houses all kinds of biotech products, from cell-cultured meats and alternative proteins to the four products mentioned above. Launched by the Environmental Law Institute with support from USDA in October 2018, this public database aggregates both new and emerging biotechnology globally. Built from data originally assembled by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM), this website is continuously updated to help policymakers, investors, and other interested individuals better understand advances in biotechnology.

Currently, 230 biotech products and counting are on the site. Products can be categorized and searched using a variety of fields, including country of production, market status, and intended use. Website users can help us expand the breadth of products on the site by submitting and suggesting biotech products, which are reviewed periodically by a small group of experts for inclusion in the database.

Check out futurebioengineeredproducts.org to begin exploring the far-reaching applications of biotechnology!