Today’s guest lecturer is Karl Schmieder, a Biochemist + the CEO of MessagingLab, a company that works with other Scientists to help them tell their stories. Karl’s a pal to a lot of the K18 Team—and let’s just say this isn’t his first biotech rodeo.
Let’s set the stage: you wake up on cotton sheets, maybe throw on a pair of jeans, drink pour-over coffee, and start the day with a yogurt.
Dreamy, right? And scientific.
If any of the aforementioned examples applied to your daily routine, biomimetics and biotechnology have touched your life.
The sheets you woke up on were made from a cotton engineered to require less pesticides while avoiding the ravages of boll weevils and bollworms.
The clothes you’re wearing were washed using enzymes (biological catalysts) that were engineered to break down organic materials in cold water. That reduces the electricity needed to heat the water while reducing greenhouse gases.
The coffee filter was bleached using enzymes that replaced dangerous chemicals.
And the yogurt, like an increasing number of foods, was probably packaged in a sustainable bioplastic that reduces the use of fossil fuels and will biodegrade rapidly with no environmental impact.
Though most of us never consider it, the technology that is based on biology - the oldest technology on the planet - is already part of your life.
And in the simplest terms, this is what biomimetics is: the practice of learning from and mimicking processes found in nature.
A little history
For the past fifty years, the tools of biology have been used to better understand living systems. This is important because biology has more than four billion years of design experience. More recently, applications of biology as a technology are being applied to solve planetary and human health challenges. In the past year alone, biology has been front page news in the form of the pandemic through the rapid development of medicines and vaccines.
Biotechnology is giving us the tools to create new foods, materials, medicines, nutrients, and its impact is only just starting to be felt in personal care products.
K18 Biomimetic Hairscience is the perfect example of biotech’s applications in personal care.
Hair is chemically + genetically complex
Hair happens to be one of the most sophisticated bio-materials, which is why they needed to research and develop things at the molecular level. This is what lead them to the polypeptide chains (or keratin chains) as the core structural unit responsible for hair strength + elasticity.
Then, they looked at the genetic basis of hair. In humans, 54 genes provide the instructions for producing keratin. About half of those keratin genes function in hair follicles. The rest are found throughout the human body, coding for keratins that are important for cell structure and regulation.
The team at K18 studied how the environment and hair treatments work and damage hair. They learned, for example, that most damage to hair occurs at the outer or cuticle level. That damage can be environmental and unintentional.
They also learned that hair dyes, perms and straighteners work by damaging hair on a molecular level, in hair’s middle layer - the cortex - disrupting the chemical bonds that hold keratin chains together.
Armed with that understanding, K18 set out to develop products using biotechnology that would repair damaged hair.
The K18Peptide™: A Product of Biotechnology
Here’s where it got really interesting to me.
The K18 researchers spent a decade mapping the human hair genome to better understand the genes that code for the keratin protein. They used computational biology tools to find human proteins that mimicked the structure and functionality of keratin proteins. K18 also applied protein engineering and biomimetics to develop a protein that was based on and mimicked hair’s existing molecular structure.
The result is the bioactive K18Peptide—a proprietary string of amino acids that is recognized by hair as natural. The K18Peptide™ repairs damage in hair’s cortex by repairing breaks in the polypeptide chains and participating in disulfide bond reformation, strengthening and reinforcing hair strength along both the x + y axis.
After using K18 for several months, my consumer perspective is that it works. My hair feels softer and I never use other products after applying K18. (BTW, it took me a while to get used to NOT conditioning my hair before applying the K18. For me that means not using several products - conditioner and pomade - which is a small, but important contribution to the environment.)
The scientist in me is fascinated in how it works. Our ability to leverage biology as technology unlocks tremendous opportunities to solve both human health and planetary health challenges. Designing with nature allows us, to leverage nature’s design principles and manufacturing capabilities at the atomic level.
The Biotech Century
From a macro-perspective, working with biology as technology is opening new opportunities for growth while addressing the challenges of diminishing finite resources and environmental change.
From a haircare perspective, the use of biotechnology to develop hair care products is only beginning. K18 is a pioneer in this regard.
I expect we’ll see a lot of great biotech-discovered and bio-engineered hair care products. In the future, we expect to see many others, to repair hair, grow hair, change hair color and texture. Even do things we haven’t even imagined.
Personally, I can’t wait.
Moll R et al. The human keratins: biology and pathology. Histochem Cell Biol. 2008 Jun; 129(6): 705–733. Accessed at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2386534/ on Jul 21, 2021.