At the beginning of the conference, Daniel Thomas, a world-renowned expert and pioneer in the field of biotechnology has set the context. According to him, industrial biotechnologies using biomass have reached a mature stage, thanks to the emergence and continuous expansion of the concept of "biorefinery".

"Biorefineries" strive to replace oil-sourced raw materials by renewable resources and enhance the value of plants by investing their various compounds. From the farmed, marine or forestry biomass, a wide variety of plant-derived molecules, materials, fuels or ingredients are produced according to processes that often rely on the principles of green chemistry.

"Biorefineries are also interacting with communities where they operate. Brittany is one of the regions that have been able to capitalise on their marine environment,” said Daniel Thomas before opposing biorefineries that interact with their close environment to those sourcing biomass from distant countries in a less sustainable way.

Marine molecules

Among natural and renewable resources, those from the oceans are often remarkable, both regarding their quantity and their diversity. "The plankton accounts for 98% of the biosphere, there are 10 to 100 billion microorganisms per litre of ocean water," says Stéphane Bach, from the Biology Station of Roscoff, who’s leading an important research project focused on plankton biodiversity screening and the identification of biological activities that may be of interest for the industry.

Microalgae-derived polysaccharides, ulvan-derived oligosaccharides from, free fatty acids derived from marine actinomycetes: the underwater world inspires research laboratories that investigate new efficient extraction processes.

"Our team has worked on new enzymatic processes for the extraction of ulvans. The oligoulvans thus obtained were tested in vitro: production of sirtuins increased by 346%," said Helen Marfaing, from the Centre d’Études et de Valorisation des Algues de Pleubian (Brittany, France).

Sederma also investigated acid and enzymatic hydrolysis techniques, as well as the saponification, in order to optimize free fatty acids yields derived from actinomycetes. "The most effective method is saponification," concluded Jodie Symington, Research Engineer at Sederma.

Amplification of bio-resources

More generally, all plant resources are subject of extensive research. And today, the entire plant is explored, not only few parts that are more specifically targeted than the others.

Researchers are also trying to increase plants’ productivity. For instance, the roots - where the synthesis of secondary metabolites and hormones takes place - can be propagated through Agrobacterium rhizogenes bacteria allowing the farming of hairy roots. Wild species such as blueberry or eldelweiss can be grown in bioreactors to promote the formation of active ingredients and thus to overcome the difficulty or the prohibition of their gathering. Molecules that naturally occur only in small quantities can be imitated through biotechnology. "We used a metabolic pathway to reproduce the production of δ-viniferin, a naturally rare resveratrol dimer with anti-aging activities," explains Carolina Malhaire of Solabia. There are plenty examples of such powerful techniques.

Enzymatic procedures

The use of catalytic enzymes is one of the most common techniques. "We use them in order to degrade plant cell walls and contribute to the release of the seeds’ compounds. These are alternatives to solvent extraction," says Lionel Muniglia, Chief Scientific Officer and co-founder of Biolie. "Through enzymatic processes, we can create ceramide analogues called pseudo-ceramides, which are highly valued in cosmetics,” complete Florian Joubioux, from the University of La Rochelle.

Finding new enzymes is a major issue and it is the objective of Isabelle André, from INSA Toulouse. "We identify the amino acids that best correspond to the molecule to be produced, we start from the target molecule and look at how we can introduce diversity," she says.

However, other techniques are also employed or coupled to enzymatic processes. For instance, Polaris, a Brittany-based company, is working on an association of molecular distillation and enzymatic trans-esterification "With this combination of processes, we extract up to 40% gamma-linolenic acid from borage oil whereas usual yields do not exceed 20%," state Bennoit Lennon.

Microwaves are also part of the panel of techniques used to extract and transform high added value ingredients.

Environmental footprint assessment

When it comes to measuring the environmental impact of these techniques, the answers are far from being easy. "The question is whether biotechnology is better than chemistry or is it the contrary," asks Romuald Vallée, Codif International, in the introduction to the session dedicated to this conference.

Some companies are developing their own measurement tools in order to know the exact impact of their inputs and outputs on sustainability. "After a long bibliographical research, we selected three environmental indicators: water consumption, greenhouse gas emissions and e-factor [1], to which we added a home-made indicator, the eco-factor, which takes into account the wastes that are generated during the process. In the future, we intend to go further in our approach with an indicator related to biodiversity and another on the impact of cleaning waters on effluent treatment," exposed Stéphanie Guillotin, Codif International.

As far as L’Oréal is concerned, the group uses a multi-criteria analysis regarding the sustainability of each ingredient or process. "Thus, we are building passports for our green materials. These passports include data related to the e-factor, the percentage of renewable carbon, or eco-toxicity," says Michel Philippe, Green Chemistry Manager, L’Oréal.