When we think biotech, we often imagine sci-fi settings with cyborgs in space ports. But these technologies are in our homes, our workplaces, and our daily lives. Here’s a closer look at some of the advanced biotech in your home right now.
In its most basic definition, biotechnology is “hacking” living organisms and biologic systems to perform specific tasks. Whether that means planting companion plants in a garden to attract pollinators and deter pests, breeding dogs for herding or hunting, or cultivating a sourdough starter, people have been using biotechnology throughout history.
Biotech in Cleaning Products
Since the 1990s, biotech has played an increasingly important role in home care, hygiene, and cleaning products. Consumers and companies are interested in detergents and cleaning agents that are environmentally sustainable, and want to avoid the many harmful chemicals that have been used in these products in the past. More and more homes and workplaces are using “green” cleaning products every day.
- Enzyme cleaners. Enzymes are proteins that trigger chemical reactions, and are involved in nearly every biological process that converts one kind of chemical into another (like the nutrients in your food becoming substances used elsewhere in the body). In laundry detergents, enzymes break down stains like protein, starches, and fats, making clothes cleaner. Specific enzymes can do specific cleaning jobs; for example, mannanases breaks down food stains from guar gum, while proteases remove protein build-up on contact lenses.
- Bio-surfactants. Surfactants reduce the surface tension between two liquids, or between liquids and solids. Surfactants make it easier for cleaning agents to break down and clean different kinds of dirt, and are used in all kinds of washing and foaming products. However, chemical surfactants have a wide range of negative effects on water quality, and can irritate and damage the skin. Biosurfactants are organic molecules that do the same task, but with less negative impact. They are useful in detergents and home cleaning supplies, but are of particular interest for their ability to help clean up industrial oil spills.
- Bacteriophages. Bacteriophages are viruses that kill specific bacteria. While they have been used medicinally since the 19th century, they are being developed as cleaning products that can disrupt and kill only harmful, targeted bacteria, without disrupting an entire beneficial microbiome. More and more bacteriophages are being used in cleaning and hygiene applications.
Advantages of Biotech Cleaning Products
Broadly speaking, biotech cleaning products do not simply make dirt and stains more soluble, so that you can mechanically wipe or wash them away; these cleaners break down the molecular components of dirt, and continue to work and clean long after they have been applied. This means that biotech cleaning products:
- Can be highly concentrated and effective
- Contain fewer (or no) chemicals or pollutants
- Better for the environment. Not only do these cleaners have reduced chemicals and pollutants, but, because they are so concentrated and effective in small quantities, they require less packaging for containers.
- Reduce incidental risks. Some detergents can irritate skin or cause allergic reactions, or some floor cleaners leave a floor slippery, increasing the risk of slip and fall accidents. Biotech surfactants don’t have these risks, making them much safer for industrial and workplace uses, where many people are exposed to the cleaning agents.
Future Developments in the Biotech Home Care Industry
The demand for environmentally safe cleaning and hygiene products has led to explosive growth in these industries. However, it presents challenges as well. Cleaning and hygiene product development has historically been performed by companies and individuals with a background in chemistry.
Developing biotech cleaning products requires unique skills and expertise. Scientists must work with the properties of enzymes, viruses, and bacteria, in a whole new way, and we are only now defining the many of the processes and standards that govern such products.
Global demand for effective cleaning products to protect homes and workplaces from germs and viruses has only increased demand for more research and development into biotech solutions. It’s an exploding industry, with no end in sight.