What is Industrial Biotechnology?

Esther Simpson
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Industrial biotechnology is one of the most promising new approaches to pollution prevention, resource conservation, and cost reduction. It is often referred to as the third wave in biotechnology. If developed to its full potential, industrial biotechnology may have a larger impact on the world than health care and agricultural biotechnology. It offers businesses a way to reduce costs and create new markets while protecting the environment. Also, since many of its products do not require the lengthy review times that drug products must undergo, it's a quicker, easier pathway to the market. Today, new industrial processes can be taken from lab study to commercial application in two to five years, compared to up to a decade for drugs.

The application of biotechnology to industrial processes is not only transforming how we manufacture products but is also providing us with new products that could not even be imagined a few years ago. Because industrial biotechnology is so new, its benefits are still not well known or understood by industry, policymakers, or consumers.

From the beginning, industrial biotechnology has integrated product improvements with pollution prevention. Nothing illustrates this better than the way industrial biotechnology solved the phosphate water pollution problems in the 1970s caused by the use of phosphates in laundry detergent. Biotechnology companies developed enzymes that removed stains from clothing better than phosphates, thus enabling replacement of a polluting material with a non-polluting biobased additive while improving the performance of the end product. This innovation dramatically reduced phosphate-related algal blooms in surface waters around the globe, and simultaneously enabled consumers to get their clothes cleaner with lower wash water temperatures and concomitant energy savings.

Rudimentary industrial biotechnology actually dates back to at least 6000 B.C. when Neolithic cultures fermented grapes to make wine, and Babylonians used microbial yeasts to make beer. Over time, mankind's knowledge of fermentation increased, enabling the production of cheese, yogurt, vinegar, and other food products. In the 1800s, Louis Pasteur proved that fermentation was the result of microbial activity. Then in 1928, Sir Alexander Fleming extracted penicillin from mold. In the 1940s, large-scale fermentation techniques were developed to make industrial quantities of this wonder drug. Not until after World War II, however, did the biotechnology revolution begin, giving rise to modern industrial biotechnology.

Since that time, industrial biotechnology has produced enzymes for use in our daily lives and for the manufacturing sector. For instance, meat tenderizer is an enzyme and some contact lens cleaning fluids contain enzymes to remove sticky protein deposits. In the main, industrial biotechnology involves the microbial production of enzymes, which are specialized proteins. These enzymes have evolved in nature to be super-performing biocatalysts that facilitate and speed-up complex biochemical reactions. These amazing enzyme catalysts are what make industrial biotechnology such a powerful new technology.

Industrial biotechnology involves working with nature to maximize and optimize existing biochemical pathways that can be used in manufacturing. The industrial biotechnology revolution rides on a series of related developments in three fields of study of detailed information derived from the cell: genomics, proteomics, and bioinformatics. As a result, scientists can apply new techniques to a large number of microorganisms ranging from bacteria, yeasts, and fungi to marine diatoms and protozoa.

Industrial biotechnology companies use many specialized techniques to find and improve nature's enzymes. Information from genomic studies on microorganisms is helping researchers capitalize on the wealth of genetic diversity in microbial populations. Researchers first search for enzyme-producing microorganisms in the natural environment and then use DNA probes to search at the molecular level for genes that produce enzymes with specific biocatalytic capabilities. Once isolated, such enzymes can be identified and characterized for their ability to function in specific industrial processes. If necessary, they can be improved with biotechnology techniques.

Many biocatalytic tools are rapidly becoming available for industrial applications because of the recent and dramatic advances in biotechnology techniques. In many cases, the biocatalysts or whole-cell processes are so new that many chemical engineers and product development specialists in the private sector are not yet aware that they are available for deployment. This is a good example of a "technology gap" where there is a lag between availability and widespread use of a new technology. This gap must be overcome to accelerate progress in developing more economic and sustainable manufacturing processes through the integration of biotechnology. "New Biotech Tools for a Cleaner Environment" provides dramatic illustrations of what these powerful new tools can do. The report aims to spark more interest in this powerful technology, to help close this technology gap, and facilitate progress toward a more sustainable future.

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