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Companies Quietly Apply Biofuel Tools to Household Products

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Genetic Engineering page and our Environment and Climate Resource Center page.

Consumer products containing ingredients made using an advanced form of engineering known as synthetic biology are beginning to show up more often on grocery and department store shelves.

A liquid laundry detergent made by Ecover, a Belgian company that makes "green" household products including the Method line, contains an oil produced by algae whose genetic code was altered using synthetic biology. The algae's DNA sequence was changed in a lab, according to Tom Domen, the company's manager for long-term innovation.

Ecover calls the algae-produced oil a "natural" replacement for palm kernel oil, which is in such high demand that environmentalists are concerned that tropical rain forests are being felled to grow palm trees, disturbing ecosystems and threatening endangered animals.

"Finding a sustainable source of palm oil is, of course, difficult," Mr. Domen said. "This new oil is a more sustainable alternative from a new technology."

That technology is synthetic biology, which involves the creation of biological systems intended for specific purposes. Synthetic biology, originally aimed at producing biofuels, has been around for about 20 years, but applications have only recently begun to emerge across several industries including cosmetics, flavorings and scents.

Unilever recently announced that it was using algae oil made by a company called Solazyme in Lux, a popular soap. The two companies signed an agreement in 2009 to explore use of Solazyme's products in the consumer giant's goods.

But in an illustration of how reluctant companies may be to disclose the use of synthetic biology, it is unclear whether the oil in Lux was generated through the same synthetic process. Unilever declined to comment.   


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