Industrial biotech

One advantage of getter older is the perspective it provides on longer term trends and cycles of fashion. This is as true in biotech as it is in other walks of life. When I started my biotech career in the late 1970’s the excitement was largely around industrial applications as opposed to the biomedical focus that came to dominate the life sciences industry. Amgen was founded in the 1970’s with the goal, inter alia, of harnessing the biosynthetic power of microbes to produce indigo dye for colouring jeans. It was only later that the company realised that it was financially much more attractive to produce recombinant human therapeutic proteins such as EPO, insulin etc. At the same time ICI, a world-leading UK chemicals company from which AstraZeneca, Syngenta and Avecia are descended, invested well in excess of £100 million developing a process to manufacture Pruteen, a microbial protein produced by bacteria grown on methanol produced from methane or natural gas. The Pruteen project was a pioneering attempt by ICI to produce food using microorganisms, which was seen as a solution to future food crises arising from the rapid growth of the world's population. Unfortunately, high production costs and falling prices of competing products meant that the project was abandoned. Although nutritionally excellent, Pruteen was just too expensive to produce.
Almost forty years later we see a renewed interest in how biotech can address the critical issue of how to produce enough fuel, feed and food sustainably to satisfy the demands of an ever-enlarging population. The emphasis now tends to be on how we can produce these end products from plants, by opting to substitute traditional polluting petrochemical feedstocks with renewable sugars and oils.
It may be theoretically possible to produce all the fuel, feed and food we need from plants but the extra land that will this require may not be available. Indeed, farmers may be tempted to switch from growing food crops to producing crops for industrial feedstock purposes. The huge growth in biofuel production over the last decade has impacted significantly on food prices as farmers have switched from food to biofuel crops. Concerns have also been raised that production of biofuels from crops actually contributes to carbon emissions. The end result has been a public backlash against biofuels that could have a significant impact on the industry; anyone remember the campaigns in Europe against so-called Frankenfoods produced from genetically modified plants?
The search for alternative more acceptable feedstocks for biofuel production is on. For example, cellulosic ethanol, produced by fermentation either of dedicated energy crops or of waste biomass, such as corn stover and wheat straw left after harvest, is promoted as a more sustainable biomass source that does not compete with food production.
Longer term, we need to move away from agricultural sources of carbon and find other routes to achieve energy independence that do not conflict with food production. One example is New Zealand firm LanzaTech, which uses the waste gases from steel production – which is rich in carbon monoxide – among possible inputs to produce ethanol. The technology can also extract energy from municipal solid waste that would otherwise be sent to landfill.
French firm Global BioEnergies has taken a different approach to the problem. The company is re-engineering microbes to produce light olefins – compounds that are not produced in nature but which are potentially invaluable as starting points for a plethora of petrochemical products. The first of these light olefins isobutene, for which a de novo pathway has already been identified and an industrial pilot plant is in preparation.
Some exciting possibilities are opening up but companies developing new technologies need to ensure that they also address wider economic and public perception issues if they are going to successfully bring their technologies to market. We all need to pay heed to and learn the lessons from the recent past.