This document is a primer on industrial biotechnology.
A dozen years after the first approval of a biotech medicine, the first biotechnology-enhanced crop entered the marketplace. Now, as scientists utilize life science technologies to improve manufacturing processes, chemical synthesis and production, a third wave of biotechnology is blossoming, industrial and environmental biotechnology.
The same genomic and proteomic technologies used to discover new drugs and therapeutics are also changing the way consumer products are being made. These technologies can create new enzyme "biocatalysts," which are used in the production of raw materials, intermediates and consumer products.
Through recombinant DNA technology, scientists can use microorganisms in new and exciting ways to manufacture polymers, vitamins, enzymes, or transportation fuel. By harnessing the natural power of enzymes or whole cell systems, and using sugars as feedstock for product manufacture, industrial biotech companies can work with nature to help us move from a petroleum-based economy to a "bio-based economy."
Industrial biotechnology companies have discovered novel microbes in diverse locations including the deep ocean trenches, the hot springs of Yellowstone Park, and even in Antarctica. By genetically modifying these microbes, companies can use them to create specialized enzymes that are in turn harnessed to make new products and cleaner manufacturing processes.
Industrial biotechnology innovations are now successfully competing with traditional manufacturing processes. Companies that adopt industrial biotechnology processes find they cut costs, reduce pollution and increase profitability. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) recently released a report detailing 21 such case studies. This report shows that industrial biotech is a key technology for achieving industrial sustainability, but companies primarily adopt the technology to cut production costs. A 2010 World Economic Forum report estimated that the market for biofuels, biobased bulk chemicals and plastics, and bioprocessing enzymes would approach $95 billion by 2020.
Industrial biotechnology may help solve the global warming problem because it can lower carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming in several ways. First, in many cases industrial biotech uses renewable feedstocks instead of fossil fuels, thereby slowing the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Secondly, industrial biotech processes use less energy and generate less carbon dioxide than traditional manufacturing processes. Scientists are also developing microorganisms that can sequester or consume carbon dioxide. Industrial biotech should be a key component of any strategy to reduce climate-change emissions.
Real World Examples of Third Wave Biotech
Proteases, which are enzymes that remove protein impurities (such as food and grass stains), are essential components of modern laundry detergents.
Industrial biotechnology can make our food healthier. Glucose oxidase and other enzymes are replacing potassium bromate as an antioxidant in flour in baked bread, due to concerns over carcinogenicity of bromate.
Bio-derived PDO is fermented from corn sugar using a biotech process that consumes less energy and emits fewer greenhouse gases compared to petroleum-based processes. More than a dozen products can be made using bio-derived PDO including cosmetics, personal care and home cleaning products.
In the future, industrial biotechnology enzymes called cellulases help us to will produce billions of gallons of ethanol transportation fuel from not only corn kernels but from corn stalks and leaves - also called cellulosic biomass - which will boost economic activity by allowing farmers to harvest two crops from a single field. Biorefineries, which have experienced rapid growth in construction since the Renewable Fuel Standard was enacted in 2005, will also create jobs in rural areas where they are especially needed.
Today, many pharmaceuticals are semi-synthetic molecules, meaning that part of their structure is created a living organism and later modified by chemical processing. Industrial biotechnology uses biocatalysis and water replacement of organic solvents to contribute to cleaner production of such semi-synthetic drugs. These processes are more profitable and greatly reduce hazardous waste production.
High-fructose corn syrup, the sweetener in coke and other soft drinks, is made with the help of enzymes. Before the process of enzyme hydrolysis for starches was created, acid was used to chemically react with corn to turn it into an intense sweetener. Now, enzymes have replaced the acid, and corn can be processed into a larger number of valuable ingredients for food and industrial products.
Industrial biotech processes are being used to make a polymer (PLA) from corn kernels. Research is under way to make PLA from corn stover, wheat straw, rice straw and other agricultural waste products made of cellulose. PLA can be used to make products such as clothing (like the t-shirt in your bag), carpeting, bedding, upholstery, car parts, candy wrappers, cups and golf tees. PLA is also compostable.
A commercially successfully bio-derived polyester plastic is biodegradable PHA, which had been demonstrated in a broad range of applications such as molded products like cell phone cases.
Enzymes can replace chlorine in pulp and paper bleaching, reducing or eliminating the production of toxic chemicals such as dioxin.
Before enzymes were introduced into the process, stonewashed jeans were just that. Jeans were washed with pumice stones from strip mines in huge machines to scour the jeans, a process that weakened or damaged the fabric. Now, this "stonewashing" process is done with enzymes. Enzymes require much less energy for the operation of the process and do not damage the fabric.
Enzymes are now being used for hide degreasing in the leather industry and for metal cleaning in the electroplating industry.
Enzymes are also used to produce ascorbic acid from glucose and in degumming processes during the production of cooking oils.
More info on the third wave? Contact Brent Erickson (202) 962-9200.
Some Industrial Biotech Applications Areas by Industrial Sectors
Fine Chemical Production
Bulk Chemical Production
Chiral Compound Synthesis
Synthesis of Vanillin and Other Food Flavor Agents