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Celebrating George Washington Carver’s Contributions to Industrial Biotech

February 6, 2013
Every February we celebrate Black History Month recognizing the contributions and accomplishments of African Americans and their role in U.S. history. George Washington Carver should be honored as an important figure influencing modern industrial biotechnology. The American scientist changed the nature of farming by using science to make everyday products from agricultural materials.

As the leading figure of the “chemurgy” movement, the branch of applied chemistry that derives industrial products from agricultural raw materials, he is really one of one of the founding fathers of modern industrial biotechnology.

“Today, his legacy lives on in industrial biotechnology companies that are developing new methods to use renewable agricultural resources to manufacture fuels, plastics, chemicals, pharmaceuticals and food ingredients, just as Carver did during the first half of the 20th century,” said Brent Erickson, executive vice president of BIO's Industrial & Environmental Section. “Today’s work remains true to his goal – a sustainable biobased economy that includes production of useful everyday products.”

Born into slavery in Missouri in 1861, Carver left home at about 10 years old to pursue an education. He pursued an interest in plants from an early age before earning a bachelor’s degree in agricultural science and a graduate degree from Iowa State University. Carver spent most of his career teaching and researching at the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama, devoting his time to teaching sustainable farming, which for him included developing new uses of agricultural products that could boost farm profits.

Carver and his students developed more than 300 industrial uses for peanuts, sweet potatoes and other crops that could be grown in rotation with cotton and corn to encourage and aid farmers in adopting sustainable practices. Carver’s inventions included everything from plastics, glue, soaps and paints to dyes for cloth and leather, medicines and cosmetic ingredients made from peanuts, sweet potatoes, or other crops and agricultural residues.

Continuing his legacy, industrial biotechnology companies today are developing new methods to use renewable agricultural resources to manufacture fuels, plastics, chemicals, pharmaceuticals and food ingredients.

In 2008, BIO created the George Washington Carver Award given annually at the World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology. It is given to innovators in academia, the private sector or government whose work has tapped industrial biotechnology to develop sustainable biobased processes or products. A scholarship, given in the name of the recipient, accompanies the award.

BIO is now accepting nominations for the 2013 George Washington Carver Award. Download the nomination form and email completed forms to Nominees must be living individuals who have demonstrated significant and innovative accomplishments employing industrial biotechnology to advance a biobased economy and industrial sustainability. The deadline for nominations is February 28, 2013.

BIO presented the first annual George Washington Carver Award to Dr. Patrick Gruber, CEO, Gevo, Inc., celebrating his accomplishments in creating and commercializing a new plastic made from annually renewable resources. In 2009, BIO awarded DuPont Chairman of the Board Charles O. Holliday, Jr., recognizing his commitment to industrial biotechnology as a tool for sustainable business growth. In 2010, the award went to Dr. Greg Stephanopoulos of MIT who is currently Bayer Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT. His work now focuses on engineering a microbe for cost-effective production of oil and biodiesel. In 2011 it was given to Feike Sijbesma of Royal DSM NV for leading his company’s efforts to promote bio-based products over those relying on fossil-fuel resources. Last year BIO honored Novozymes President and CEO Steen Riisgaard who has led Novozymes in creating tomorrow’s industrial biotechnology solutions and improving the use of our planet’s resources, while reducing reliance on fossil fuels.

The 2013 Carver Award winner will be announced at the 10th Annual World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology in Montreal, Canada, June 16-19 at the Palais des congrès de Montréal.