Genetic Engineering - an Enduring Subject of Public Debate

Social groups opposed to biotechnology and genetic engineering are taking an increasingly differentiated view of the individual application fields. This was one reason for Henkel to turn the spotlight on the role of biotechnology and genetic engineering in its own activities and whether the research it carries out and the utilized applications can be categorized as responsible.

Biotechnologically manufactured Detergent Enzymes

Photo Laboratory

A single, narrowly defined, but important group of raw materials is manufactured by Henkel by means of biotechnology and is, to some extent, genetically manipulated. These are enzymes for detergents and household cleaners.

Enzymes are of vital importance for metabolic processes in plants, animals and humans. They make certain chemical reactions proceed very quickly. Enzymes of the protease class, for example, break down the proteins in the food we eat into their basic building blocks, the amino acids. These in turn combine to create the body's own specific proteins.

Enzymes are specialists whose capabilities are also used in washing and dishwashing machines. Proteases selectively break down protein stains, and lipases attack fat stains, even at low washing temperatures. This is why enzymes are important components of detergents. During the life cycle of a detergent – from the raw material to disposal in a sewage treatment plant – most energy is consumed during the washing process itself (see the washing system life cycle assessment data in the chapter products). Furthermore, much more energy is consumed at high operating temperatures than at low ones. Enzymes take much of the credit for the excellent results obtained with modern detergents at low temperatures.

If certain bacteria, as naturally occurring microorganisms, are provided with the correct nutrients and kept under the conditions they prefer, they are capable of producing these detergent enzymes as metabolic products. Industrial-scale biotechnological processes have been developed to utilize this phenomenon. The bacteria grow and multiply in water-filled, closed agitator vessels known as fermenters. The optimal conditions for growth are established by precisely regulating the temperature and the addition of oxygen and nutrients. This results in high enzyme yields. Finally, the enzymes are separated from the bacteria. To ensure that the enzymes can be readily and safely processed, auxiliary substances such as cellulose, starch and wax are used to produce stable enzyme granulates.

Genetic Engineering at Henkel

In the past, Henkel used proteases that had been produced by the traditional method. The organisms needed to create the proteases were isolated from their natural environment and optimized by a process of selection. Since the mid 1980s, Henkel's genetic engineering and biotechnology specialists have been working on transferring the genetic information of highly effective proteases to especially suitable, proven production strains. In this way, much purer enzymes can be obtained from smaller amounts of raw material. In addition, especially efficient enzymes can be developed by manipulating the genetic information.

The life cycle assessment of a genetically engineered protease in comparison with its predecessor shows that, even during production of the new protease, emissions of carbon dioxide and the organic load in wastewater decrease by more than 60 percent overall. Moreover, the cut in energy consumption achieved each year by switching production to the new type is equivalent to the energy needed for 11.5 million wash cycles at 60 degrees Celsius in modern household washing machines.

The president of the German Federal Environment Agency explained his view of biotechnology on the occasion of a seminar organized in Bonn by the Federal Ministry of the Environment in late 1996. He singled out detergent enzymes for special praise in view of the cuts achieved in energy and water consumption, as well as the reduced amounts of washing active substances released into the environment. He emphasized, “Considerable additional conservation of resources is achieved when the enzymes are no longer produced by traditional biotechnological, but rather by genetic engineering methods.”

High Safety Standard

Henkel deals very carefully and seriously with all ethical questions relating to biotechnology and genetic engineering. Henkel's field of business is, however, far removed from those fields of genetic engineering that are on the fringe of the ethically responsible.

Henkel subscribes to the core ethical values of EuropaBio, the European Association for Bioindustries, and conforms to its principles. The principles, which cover issues relating to genetic engineering, include statements ranging from “We neither use nor support the use of cloning technologies to reproduce human beings” to “We support the exchange of biotechnology between developed and developing countries duly considering each country's cultural values.”

The applicable regulation of the European Union defines four safety levels for handling genetically modified organisms. The microorganisms used to produce enzymes belong, without exception, to the level with the least safety requirements. Henkel's research laboratories and pilot plants are constructed and equipped to ensure that the microorganisms cannot enter the environment by way of the produced enzymes, wastewater, or any other path. After the enzymes have been separated, the biomass is sterilized. In other words, all of the microorganisms are killed.

Publicly accessible Information on Genetic Engineering

The enzyme granulates for Henkel's detergents and household cleaners are produced in Kundl, Austria, by Biozym, a joint venture between Henkel and Sandoz. The fermentation, i.e. the cultivation of the micro organisms, is carried out by Sandoz. Biozym purifies the enzymes and formulates them to dust-free granulates or liquid products. 

The enzymes are clearly declared on the packages of Henkel detergents and household cleaners. In line with voluntary agreements, Henkel has provided the appropriate regulatory bodies with detailed and confidential information, including data on the production of its enzymes. Henkel has always kept regulatory bodies, consumer organizations, environmental organizations and individuals informed about the importance of genetic engineering and biotechnology in the manufacture of enzymes through special brochures and other publications, as well as workshops.

Henkel's strategy is not to exploit the opportunities offered by white biotechnology and genetic engineering unless they result in ecological gain, greater benefit for consumers, and economic advantages for Henkel. Although it is highly unlikely that the Düsseldorf genetic engineering specialists could approach the boundaries of the ethically responsible when researching new fields of application, this would, nevertheless, be the first aspect to be thoroughly investigated before undertaking any possible future expansion of genetic engineering.

Other ingredients based on White Biotechnology

Besides enzymes Henkel's laundry and home care products contain further ingredients based on White Biotechnology – e.g. biosurfactants and citric acid. However, we do not produce these ingredients ourselves, but purchases them from our suppliers. Biosurfactants are washing active substances with a biological provenance. Surfactants provide the “adhesive” interface between the water and grease molecules, facilitating the process of dislodging soil particles from the wash or some other surface. Biosurfactants are manufactured through the action of yeasts or bacteria on renewable raw materials. Citric acid is produced on an industrial scale by a special fungus.

My Report
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