he delicate hybrids thriving in the balmy climes of Provence, southern France's traditional perfume region, include sweet jasmine, May roses -- and fresh layers of artificial human skin.
Scientists here are working feverishly to develop new technologies to test cosmetics before a EU ban on animal testing begins in March 2009.
These advanced materials -- including reconstructed eye tissue and tiny circles of skin developed from donor cells harvested from cosmetic operations -- are a vital part of the industry's future as it faces rapidly tightening European regulations, rules that apply to any company wishing to sell in the 27-nation EU.
The looming European ban is not only forcing multinational companies to adopt new practices. It is also bringing together regulators in Brussels with agencies from the world's other large cosmetics markets -- the US Food and Drug Administration and the Ministry of Health in Japan -- to harmonize regulation.
Even more surprising, the new standards are pushing longtime secretive rivals to cooperate, grudgingly and sometimes with prodding from regulators and politicians.
European Commissioner for Science Janez Potocnik appeared this month at a meeting for multinational companies and chided them for slowing the search for alternatives by failing to share information.
The stakes are high. Europe is the world's leading cosmetics market, and it exports more than US$23.4 billion in cosmetics every year. Products imported from the US to Europe amount to nearly US$2 billion a year, about 7 percent of all cosmetics purchased by Europeans. After the US, Japan is the second leading provider of cosmetics to Europe.
"Without question these regulations are having an impact," said Alan Goldberg, director of the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "What company is going to want to eliminate 450 million customers by not complying?"
The cosmetics giant L'Oreal has devoted more than US$800 million in the last 20 years to the development of alternatives to animal testing, while its US rival, Procter & Gamble, maker of the Cover Girl line, has spent almost US$225 million.
"For the cosmetics industry, it's a race," said Herve Groux, 45, a French immunology scientist who presides over a year-old research lab in Grasse that aids smaller companies lacking the resources of titans like L'Oreal and Procter & Gamble. "The rules are pushing everyone to move faster and to put more money into research."
The European Commission itself is spending almost 25 million euros (US$36.5 million) yearly on the search for animal alternatives, while many countries are seeding programs with annual budgets of 15 million euros to 20 million euros.
Groux's lab, Immunosearch, had its official debut party last week in a boxy industrial park, where Groux and his wife, a molecular biologist, and other newly recruited veteran researchers are striving to shape a new world of beauty research -- and at the same time spare the lives of thousands of rabbits, mice, rats and guinea pigs.
As the 2009 deadline approaches, European regulators issue periodic tallies of the number of laboratory animals potentially spared by alternatives to animal tests, across all kinds of industrial uses. Part of the pressure for alternatives also stems from additional legislation, known as Reach, requiring companies to develop safety data on 30,000 chemicals over the next 11 years -- research that could raise the prospect of increased animal testing.