Exploring biodiversity to produce sustainable cosmetics and agrochemicals
AGROCOS is a pioneering European project which is using modern scientific techniques to explore the ancient – and still largely untapped - richness of nature to develop new products for the agrochemical and cosmetics industries.
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By searching through nature’s molecules to discover the essential building blocks for a new generation of ingredients, the project is expected to pave the way for products which are not only innovative and effective but also, being naturally derived, friendlier for both humans and the environment than existing synthetic products.
At the heart of the AGROCOS project are molecules extracted from 1,800 plant species harvested in ‘biodiversity hotspots’ in Africa, Europe, Latin America and the Asia-Pacific region. The compounds extracted are being tested for qualities which would benefit the agrochemical sector, such as anti-fungal, herbicidal or insecticidal effects, while for the cosmetics industry the key characteristics of interest include UV protection and anti-ageing properties, or efficacy against age spots (known as ‘hyper-pigmentation’). From the thousands of compounds extracted, the project aims to identify the five most promising ones.
In addition to these final five ingredients, the project will create an extensive ‘library’ of compounds, to be made available for future use by researchers or commercial enterprises.
As the AGROCOS Project Coordinator, Professor Leandros Skaltsounis of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, explains, “this is an important breakthrough for the technique of ‘bio-prospecting’ - deriving materials from nature. Plants have been used since antiquity to meet people’s needs,” he says. “Henna dye has long been used as a cosmetic, for example, or the Indian Neem tree for crop protection,” he adds. This “primitive” bio-prospecting was revived in recent decades as the discovery of novel bioactive products enabled the production of important anti-cancer and anti-microbial drugs. What is new and exciting today is that modern technologies have finally made bio-prospecting a viable technique, in terms of both cost and time, not just for pharmaceuticals but also for more general industrial applications like cosmetics and agrochemicals.
This breakthrough for bio-prospecting is especially important as it comes at a time when concerns are growing about the impact of synthetic cosmetics and agrochemicals on both humans and the environment. Synthetic cosmetic ingredients such as UV screens are under scrutiny for their endocrine-disrupting and other detrimental effects on humans and water-living organisms, while the leakage of agrochemicals into the environment is a problem that needs to be addressed. The long-term effects of low-dose exposure to the ever-growing number of such synthetic chemicals are not yet well understood.
“In this context, the benefits of AGROCOS will be specific and tangible,” says Professor Skaltsounis. “By the end of the project, novel compounds drawn from the resources offered by global biodiversity are expected to be available for use as new ingredients in cosmetic products,” he comments. “In the field of agrochemicals, where the development procedure is lengthier – up to 10 years - we expect that the promising compounds will be the starting point for more specialised development of agrochemical agents.”
For one of the project partners, KORRES, a Greek company which develops a wide range of natural cosmetic products, there is no doubt about the significance of the project. “This is the biggest piece of research in natural ingredients in recent years,” says Lena Korres, the company’s Brand Development Director, who is in charge of new product development.
“This goes right back to our heritage here at KORRES,” she explains. “We are passionate about natural ingredients and research is at the core of what we do. For us, this will be fantastic because it will provide us not only with the five specific ingredients, but also with an extensive library of ingredients detailing the benefits of each and how they can help us in cosmetics.”
Even more exciting will be the fact that this could be just the tip of the iceberg for bio-prospecting. According to Professor Skaltsounis, “only 10% of the existing 400,000 higher plant species, and an even lower percentage of fungi and invertebrates, have so far been analysed.”