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Bioethics Forum Essay

New in Skin Care: Natural and GMO

At the end of April, the biotech firm Amyris announced that it was launching its own line of skin emollient under the brand name Biossance. The product is based on a hycrocarbon known as squalane that Amyris produces from sugarcane using genetically modified microorganisms and has sold to cosmetics manufacturers such as L’Oreal and Unilever. Amyris’s decision to sell directly to the public is an interesting moment in the debate about the relationship between genetic science and the idea of the “natural.”

Genetic science is typically assumed to be at odds with nature, but maybe that’s not necessarily true. Biossance is being presented as both. Although the product literature does not call attention to the product’s GMO provenance, Amyris’s decision to sell it to the public directly brings the GMO aspect more into the open, since Amyris is all about genetic modification of microbes. At the same time, the imagery and language aim to convey that it is a natural product: the squalane in it is, according to Amyris website, “plant-derived, renewably-sourced, and ECOCERT-approved,” and “naturally present” in the skin. Ecocert approval means that it is “a natural and organic cosmetic”—and also that it is GMO-free, which is true, for what it’s worth, since the product is GMO-free even if its production is not.

Even the product names suggest a soup of themes. Biossance sounds like fragrance or essence yet also like bioscience. The prefix “bio-” denotes life, of course, yet nowadays tends to be associated with biological research and biotechnology. And the squalane in Biossance has the brand name Neossance, bringing to mind naissance (birth) and therefore also Renaissance (age of science and reason).

These associations are marketing matters, of course. Ultimately, any implication of an intrinsic connection to nature or to science doesn’t really matter. And that’s sort of the point here. Too often, we stop at the idea that genetic science necessarily overturns or undoes nature, and as a result we don’t think very clearly about anything else. We should instead be asking about the results and the applications of genetic science—just as we do with the technologies employed in wind turbines and solar power.

Gregory E. Kaebnick is a research scholar at The Hastings Center and editor of the Hastings Center Report. He is the author of Humans in Nature: The World as We Find It and the World as We Create It (Oxford University Press 2013).

Posted by Susan Gilbert at 05/06/2015 09:55:55 AM |

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