How biotechnology is evolving in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Biotechnology 2018

Illustration of a laboratory research and development company working in biotechnology with an exclusive license on a process of organic production of hydrocarbons from renewable resources. © European Union , 2010 / Source: EC – Audiovisual Service / Photo: Laurent Chamussy.

This article is brought to you based on the strategic cooperation of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Victor de Lorenzo, Head, Molecular Environmental Microbiology Laboratory, Spanish Council for Scientific Research (CSIC).

When modern biotechnology emerged in the late 1970s, it was first applied in the health sector, with the onset of recombinant DNA. One decade later, the same molecular approaches reached the agricultural and food industries, not without controversy.

Finally, biotechnologists started to enrich the capabilities of industrial microbial processes by bringing new genes to live catalysts and modifying their genomes to fit pre-specified production needs. Though such operations were deemed as genetic engineering, in reality the engineering aspects were more metaphor than reality. Instead, what we might call genetic bricolage (i.e. trial-and-error) dominated the field quite successfully for a long time.

However, the arrival of systems biology by the end of the 1990s, and the emergence of synthetic biology in the early 2000s, completely changed the game of designing microorganisms, and even higher living systems, as agents for industrial-scale transformations of feedstocks of diverse origins into valuable products. Microorganisms capable of producing a variety of chemicals of industrial importance, including dicarboxylic acids (succinic acid and adipic acid), diols (1,3-propanediol and 1,4-butanediol), diamines (putrescine and cadaverine) and many others have been developed. Some bacteria and yeast long known by the industry can now be genetically reprogrammed and repurposed, for example to produce lipids serving as biofuel precursors. Even non-natural chemicals such as gasoline and terephthalic acid can now be produced by metabolic engineering.

Furthermore, contemporary biotechnology has produced biomaterials including polysaccharides (microbial cellulose), proteins (spider silk), and even formerly synthetic polymers (polylactate and poly[lactate-co-glycolate]) by fermentation of engineered microorganisms. Some strains have been successfully designed to produce polyhydroxyalkanoates, a family of diverse biopolyesters, for applications in environmentally friendly packaging, medicine and smart materials.

Moreover, innovative bioprocessing is increasingly developed based on the unusual properties of extant biological systems (e.g. extremophiles) to run fermentations, for example in seawater and non-sterile conditions. Not in vain, systems-guided metabolic engineering was selected by the WEF as one of 2016’s top 10 emerging technologies.

However, despite these successes, the chemical and manufacturing industries are still largely reluctant to adopt bio-based transformations and bio-inspired practices that could take over many extant oil-based processes. The limiting factor is the difficulty of converting laboratory-scale operations into economically viable, industrially-sized equivalents. The instability of live catalysts, the consumption of large volumes of water and difficulties in downstream processing have deterred what in many cases would otherwise be a welcome transition in the methods of production.

So is advanced biotech restricted to producing just small amounts of high value-added molecules? To overcome the impasse for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, various issues need to be addressed, both on the biological and industrial sides. Genomic and phenotypic stability of live catalysts is paramount for matching the efficiency of bioprocesses to those already existing in the purely chemical realm. This is not just a technical problem, but a fundamental scientific question that needs to be addressed. The interplay of stress versus chromosome constancy (including implanted genetic devices) under production conditions must be investigated at large, and new approaches for its control developed.

In the meantime, cell-free production systems may offer an interim solution to the challenge of predictability. Additional biological questions such as gene expression under non-saturating water conditions, physiology at very high cell densities and minimization of cell debris due to spontaneous lysis will surely help to make bioprocesses more appealing to big industry.

But the challenges are not only biological. They are also found on the process engineering side. In contrast with the spectacular advances of recent years in genomic editing, basic fermentation methods have remained largely the same since the ancient Egyptians produced beer. An aqueous nutrient medium in a pot or barrel is inoculated with an active agent and left to evolve until the desired transformation occurs, or until the desired compounds are generated.

Modern engineering has been able to control fermentation to an extraordinary degree, and has certainly extended bioreactor types towards much more sophisticated designs. But most industrial bioproduction still relies on vessels filled with a considerable volume of water-based, sterile media inoculated with a single monoculture of the adequate strain. Productivity is then measured in grammes per litre.

There is ample room for improving this state of affairs, by encouraging investigation into how some natural systems produce compounds in large amounts. For instance, couldn’t we get inspiration from the awesome productivity of cows’ udders or rubber trees, as we design a different type of bioreactor with very little water, sterile functioning and easy operation? What is the engineering logic that makes these systems so efficient?

There is much to learn from such optimally evolved biological reactors, beyond just trying to adapt biological catalysts to already existing platforms. Production at the site of need or at the point of care also demands new concepts for generation of biomolecules in miniaturized, portable settings, that will surely differ from what we have now.

Finally, modern biotechnology has much to offer for overcoming the alienation between the global industrial metabolism and the geobiochemical cycles of the biosphere. Waste from unchecked industrial, agricultural and urban development has generated large amounts of greenhouse gases, non-degradable plastics, micropollutants, major unbalances of nitrogen and phosphorus, and an unmanageable volume of lignocellulosic residues.

The global environmental microbiome could become our main ally for reconnecting such anthropogenic waste with the cycling of elements that operates our planet. If a few chemical reactions (e.g. the Haber-Bosch process for nitrogen fixation) were able to change the ecology of our planet, we may also explore ways of mitigating our impact by deploying large-scale bio-based interventions aimed at restoring former environmental balances and creating new ones.

Of course, this would not be a mere academic experiment but a multi-tiered mission involving many stakeholders and requiring careful governance. Yet, in view of the phenomenal environmental challenges that the next generation faces, inaction and business-as-usual surely pose the highest risk.

the sting Milestones

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

This Finnish town will be carbon neutral by 2025. Here’s how.

VAT: EU Member States still losing almost €150 billion in revenues according to new figures

EU budget: Commission proposes major funding increase for stronger borders and migration

Cambodia: Giving back to UN peacekeeping

State aid: Commission approves €1.9 billion Czech scheme to support uncovered fixed costs of companies affected by coronavirus outbreak

Aid used for trade is helping developing countries diversify

Mobile Technology Saving Lives: Changing healthcare systems with simple technological solutions

What does reimagining our energy system look like?

Why the 33,000 staff European Commission did not have a real contingency plan for the refugee crisis?

We need to talk about big data and genomics. Here’s why – and how

Athens searches frantically for a new compromise between politics and economic reality

It’s ‘time to #EndTB’, says UN on World Tuberculosis Day

Auctions are changing, thanks to 2020’s Nobel economics prize winners

The EU checks the multinationals for tax fraud but Britain may sail out of the EU via Panama

Currency Union might not let an independent Scotland join the EU as the “Yes” front now leads

Tuesday’s Daily Brief: funding for Palestine refugees, families today, tech surveillance

This is the world’s greenest football club – and you’ve probably never even heard of it

Over 40 million people still victims of slavery

One year on: EU-Canada trade agreement delivers positive results

What is ‘South-South cooperation’ and why does it matter?

AIESEC @ European Business Summit 2014: European Youth, Change Now Patiently

These will be the main cybersecurity trends in 2020

3 trends that will transform the energy industry

Climate Change: A Healthcare Emergency

DR Congo: Ebola claims over 1,000 lives, Guterres commits ‘whole’ UN system, to help ‘end the outbreak’

Commission proposes to top up support for refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey

Population in crisis hit EU countries will suffer for decades

This country came up with 5 novel ideas to tackle the pandemic

Brexit: An orderly exit is in the interests of both parties

Annexing Jordan Valley would end ‘illusion’ of a meaningful two-State solution: UN rights expert

China is winning the electric vehicle race

World Migratory Bird Day highlights deadly risks of plastic pollution

Stop cooperation with and funding to the Libyan coastguard, MEPs ask

Biblioburro: The amazing donkey libraries of Colombia

UN sounds alarm as Venezuelan refugees and migrants passes three million mark

How long until you retire? Across Europe, people’s working life is getting shorter

We have to fight for a fairer tech industry for women

Feeling the heat? This is how to keep cool as temperatures rise

DR Congo President and UN chief meet at a ‘historic moment’ for democracy in the country

A new era of computing is coming. How can we make sure it is sustainable?

5 charts that bust some myths about migration

MEPs back plans to promote water reuse for agricultural irrigation

How the Great Famine inspired Irish people to help Native Americans in the fight against COVID-19

The technologies – and thoughtful collaborations – that can build resilience in the food system after COVID-19

Greece bailout ends but with no substantial effect on citizens’ life

This is what great leadership looks like in the digital age

This air taxi uses 5G to ‘see’ around corners

European elections: A chance to repel both nationalism and no-deal Brexit

How TV has brought mental health issues into the light – and helped to banish stigma

Mergers: Commission clears acquisition of Refinitiv by London Stock Exchange Group, subject to conditions

Sweden has invented a word to encourage people not to fly. And it’s working

Good Governance in developing modern quality infrastructure systems

Disaster Medicine in Medical Education: the investment you just can´t afford to ignore

Here are what UNESCO considers to be remarkable new World Heritage Sites

Preparing for developing countries the ‘Greek cure’

One small flight for a drone, one ‘big leap’ for global health

The European reaction to the neo-fascist wind

New rules to help consumers join forces to seek compensation

Fairer and clearer rules on social benefits for EU mobile workers agreed

Security Council renews Central African Republic arms embargo

More Stings?

Trackbacks

  1. […] Ok, mas o que diabos isso significa? Victor de Lorenzo, chefe do Laboratório Molecular de Microbiologia Ambiental para o Conselho Espanhol de Pesquisas Científicas (CSIC), escrevendo para European Sting, observa: […]

Leave a Reply to Como a biotecnologia e a quarta revolução industrial podem transformar o mundo - Deviante Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s