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EU project hunts for natural substitutes to synthetics

The EU-funded AGROCOS project is foraging through the plant world for natural substitutes to synthetic ingredients currently used in cosmetics, and in agrochemical products such as insecticides, herbicides and fungicides. 

By analysing nature’s molecules to discover a new generation of natural ingredients, AGROCOS aims to pave the way for innovative products that address consumers’ concerns about the impact of synthetic ingredients on their health and the environment. It fits with the EU strategy to move to a society that relies more strongly on renewable, sustainable biological resources to satisfy the needs of both consumers and industry.

The project ends in September 2014 and the researchers have so far identified 30 promising molecules. These are being tested by the consortium’s commercial partners – Korres, a Greek natural cosmetics company, and Germany’s BASF, one of the world’s largest chemical manufacturers.

Currently, Korres is testing five molecules with antioxidant properties in combination with an ultraviolet protectant and other compounds for preventing hyper-pigmentation, commonly known as age spots.

The company has produced compounds and standardised extracts on a pilot scale. Korres plans to launch a new product line based on AGROCOS’ research in the next two years.

The project provided Korres an opportunity to access to a wide-range of expertise and potential ingredients,said Lena Korres, the company’s brand development director. For us, this will be fantastic because it will provide us not only with specific ingredients, but also with an extensive library of ingredients detailing the benefits of each and how they can help us in cosmetics,” she added.

Meanwhile, BASF is testing compounds for insecticidal, fungicidal and herbicidal properties. The increasing demand for organic foods has created a pressing need for natural pesticides that can be used on crops certified as ‘organic’. Natural substitutes for pesticides are also normally less toxic to people, the soil and the environment in general. They usually affect only the target pest and related organisms, without putting other animals at risk. And they tend to be biodegradable.

AGROCOS’ research is based on ‘bio-prospecting’ a technique of searching through species for valuable compounds. For AGROCOS this means sifting through plant molecules to identify those with desirable properties for cosmetics or for pesticides.

European Research, Innovation and Science Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn said: “AGROCOS is a great example of how EU funding can inspire innovative research that boosts competitiveness, growth and jobs in Europe – while protecting people’s health and the environment. We will continue to invest in this type of research and innovation in our new Horizon 2020 programme.”

AGROCOS has also created a library of 3600 bioactive extracts produced from some 1800 plant species. This will be shared so other researchers and commercial enterprises can search through them for molecules that may be valuable for industry. Project partner BRUKER Biospin, based in Germany, is looking into commercialising a tool developed during the project for identifying known natural compounds in plant extracts.

“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,” said project coordinator Leandros Skaltsounis of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. “In the field of agrochemicals we expect that the promising compounds will be the starting point for more specialised development of agrochemical agents.”


The AGROCOS project, supported with €2.9 million in EU funding, brings together companies Korres, BASF and BRUKER Biospin with six research centres and universities from France, Greece, Panama, Switzerland and South Africa.

The project received funding under the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development (2007-2013).

On 1 January 2014, the European Union launched a new research and innovation funding programme called Horizon 2020. Over the next seven years almost €80 billion will be invested in research and innovation projects to support Europe’s economic competitiveness and extend the frontiers of human knowledge. The EU research budget is focused on improving everyday life in areas like health, the environment, transport, food and energy. Research partnerships with the pharmaceutical, aerospace, car and electronics industries also encourage private-sector investment in support of future growth and high-skilled job creation. Horizon 2020 will have an even greater focus on turning excellent ideas into marketable products, processes and services.

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