In this article we will discuss about the future of industrial biotechnology.
In the USA in 2001, the Biomass R&D Board had surveyed 134 industrial sites that were manufacturing bio-products and found 440 of which produced bioenergy. In 2001, about 5 per cent of global chemical sales were derived in part form industrial biotechnology.
That figure could reach 20 per cent by 2010, if chemical firms, whose polymer innovation had stalled in recent decades, became convinced by the economics of bio-based products.
Enzymes and fermentations were already used in the production of flavours and fragrances, while other markets would still be dominated by conventional chemistry through 2010 and beyond.
The first applications in the largest volume segments—polymers and bulk chemicals— have already been commercialised. However, in these largely cost-driven segments, a number of technological advances and policy measures would determine the ultimate uptake of industrial biotechnology.
As biotechnological processes become cheaper, the economic contribution of industrial biotechnology will increase. Among the incentives for industrialists to invest in bio-products or biofuels, which were still more expensive than their chemical equivalents, the OECD suggested to include the real cost of the environmental impact of industrial processes in market prices.
The American Institute of Chemical Engineers proposed a total cost assessment method, which attempted to figure out in dollars all the risks posed on the environment, as well as on health and safety. Such a method and others like the ‘green index’ should entice an increasing number of enterprises to seize the opportunities offered by the bio-industry not only for the environment but also for the consumers and shareholders.
In the USA, representatives from different governmental bodies, industry, agriculture and academia worked together on a project called ‘Vision 2020’ with a view to boosting industrial biotechnology over the next decades backed by low feedstock prices and the support of the agricultural community in the USA.
The Farm Bill passed in May 2002 by the US House of Representatives, authorised $5 million in 2002 and $14 million a year from 2003 through 2007 to fund biomass research and award grants to build ‘biorefineries’—factories converting biomass into chemicals, fuels and energy. The Bill also requested the government to give preference to purchasing bio-based products.
Meanwhile, the European Bioindustries Association (EuropaBio) has proposed to the European Commission to form a strategic alliance to design a so-called Technology Platform.
In order to stimulate global companies to invest in industrial biotechnology and in Europe, bridging incentives, more effective regulatory processes and low-cost feedstock were key factors. Another switch that may prove crucial to watch is the move from ethanol to biotechnologically produced hydrogen.
The driving power would not come from internal combustion engines but from fuel cells using hydrogen. In this regard, genomics may be the answer. Using the money Celera Genomics had raised, Craig Venter, who designed the whole-genome shotgun sequencing for both the human and microbial genomes, set up the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives, with a view to studying microorganisms that produce hydrogen.
One example is that of Carboxydothermus, discovered in a hydrothermal vent (deep-sea volcanic spring) off the coast of Russia, which draws its energy from reacting carbon monoxide with water, and produces hydrogen as a waste product.
Another of Craig Venter’s projects was to create a bacterium with a completely synthetic genome, leaving out the genes for carbohydrate synthesis that normally use hydrogen ions, so that the bacterium could devote all its energy pathways to producing hydrogen.
Such unicellular micro-organism would not be able to live outside the laboratory because it would lack the biochemical mechanisms to survive there. Discovering new materials for the industry while drawing on natural resources also speaks well for the prospects of industrial biotechnology.
For instance, Nexia Biotechnologies, based in Quebec, is using technology similar to that of GTC Biotherapeutics to manufacture spider silk in goat’s milk. Spider silk has been produced for the past 400 million years and has been adapted to a wide range of uses. This is an opportunity human beings could seize and use biotechnology-derived spider silk in many applications, from surgery to the design of new textiles.