Dr Kirk J Malone is Director of Commercialisation at the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology. In this blog he looks to nature as part of a wider rethink into how we produce, process and recycle materials.
• There needs to be a fundamental rethink in the way we manufacture and dispose of materials.
• One of the most innovative and promising routes to tackling these materials challenges is through Industrial Biotechnology.
• Scientists are now taking a fresh look at nature to feed the development of new bio-inspired advanced materials.
• The UK is well positioned to become an international industrial biotech innovation and commercialisation hub, and a major contributor to clean economic growth.
• To fully realise this potential, Industrial Biotechnology needs the establishment of its own Sector Deal from the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
20th century advances in chemistry revolutionised material science, fundamentally changing global society. Plastics now underpin every aspect of modern life, from food to fashion, and from mobile phones to medicines. But in recent times we have come to realise that this petrochemical boom is leading to an environmental bust, with plastics now contaminating soil, water and food chains across the Earth. We need a fundamental rethink on the way we manufacture and dispose of materials.
One of the most innovative and promising routes to tackling these materials challenges is through biology. Industrial Biotechnology (IB) is the application of nature’s catalysts – enzymes – and biological systems, to produce and process materials, chemicals and energy. It is a burgeoning area of science, with recent developments in the field of synthetic biology giving us the ability to adapt biological systems for useful features to apply to a wide range of pharmaceuticals, chemicals and materials, for example meat that ‘tells us’ when it’s going off, reducing food waste and saving money.
Scientists at the University’s Manchester Institute of Biotechnology (MIB) are at the forefront of the UK’s efforts to apply IB to materials science and there are three main avenues for this research: biomanufacturing of sustainable plastics, ‘end-of-life’ degradation and recycling, and next generation bio-inspired materials.
Biomanufacturing of sustainable plastics
Instead of manufacturing plastics from crude oil, IB gives us the ability to produce bio-based materials from alternative carbon sources, such as non-food crops, or even agricultural waste. This is already happening at the industrial scale, for instance international chemical giant BASF switched its global production of acrylamide (the precursor to polyacrylamide, a widely used plastic) to an enzyme-based process, and all the major tyre producers are investigating IB-produced alternatives to natural rubber. But, whilst ‘drop-in replacements’ to traditional ingredients might lower the carbon footprint of the final product, this isn’t an environmental panacea; for example, a polymer derived from bio-based feedstock isn’t necessarily biodegradable. Polyethylene produced via biotechnology has the same chemical properties as oil-derived, non-biodegradable polyethylene. So, a biopolyethylene bag bought from your local supermarket isn’t necessarily going to be biodegradable simply because the polyethylene used was produced in a different way.
Low cost, sustainable production of common plastics is challenging, but this is a priority area for the Future Biomanufacturing Research Hub (Future BRH). A new UK national centre, the Future BRH is developing innovative biotechnologies for high-value manufacturing to sustainably produce pharmaceuticals, chemicals and materials. Scientists here are developing robust industrial microorganisms that can be grown in non-sterile environments, such as in seawater, both reducing costs of getting from lab to product, and reducing freshwater demands.
‘End-of-life’ degradation and recycling
The microbes that live alongside us are starting to adapt to the waste that we’re putting into the environment. Some have naturally evolved to produce enzymes that can use plastic to create energy. MIB researchers, in partnership with the Henry Royce Institute for Advanced Materials, are seeking to ‘supercharge’ these natural evolution processes to engineer enzymes orders of magnitude faster by using a directed evolution approach. What would this mean in practice? It could mean much better recycling and far less environmental damage. The material used to make many ‘degradable’ coffee cup lids looks the same to the sorting machinery at the recycling depot as the plastic used to make clear soda bottles. But they can’t be recycled in the same way, and any contamination – if you put your coffee cup lid in the wrong bin – could mean that the whole batch is spoiled. Using enzymes to degrade these contaminants so they don’t have to be sorted by hand could lower the cost of recycling as well as creating better recycled products.
Next generation bio-inspired materials
From the sticky, stretchy or stiff kinds of silk found in spiders’ webs to the resilient properties of nacre (mother of pearl), the natural world has evolved an enormous variety of materials with desirable mechanical properties, such as enhanced strength, flexibility, adhesion and transparency.
Scientists are now taking a fresh look at nature to feed the development of new bio-inspired advanced materials. By drawing on knowledge gained in more established IB fields, such as pharmaceuticals, we have a toolbox of new enzymes to access novel chemistry that is difficult to reach with traditional methods. When combined with the latest computer-aided design software and laboratory automation, this IB approach gives a powerful platform to create exciting new biomaterials for a wide range of applications. Already, MIB research has led to optical coatings that can manipulate light, lightweight spider silk derived composites with enhanced strengths, and new healable materials that can form protective coatings.
Cross-working and managing risk
The biomanufacturing of materials requires cross disciplinary research, bringing together chemistry, mathematics, microbiology, synthetic biology, process engineering and materials science. But the transition to a sustainable bio-based future cannot occur in an academic vacuum, it also requires collaboration with industry, across multiple sectors.
The step-out nature of this R&D will require co-investment from Governments and international bodies to reduce the risk of investment for companies, especially SMEs. The UK Government’s Bioeconomy Strategy (published December 2018), outlined a vision to double the size of the bioeconomy by 2030. Government recognition of the importance of IB in delivering this vision is welcome but there must also be financial support for companies who want to develop biomanufacturing knowledge and capabilities.
Looking to the future: barriers and opportunities
In 2014-15, a dedicated research council fund was established, the IB Catalyst, which proved to be a highly effective way of sharing of risk in commercialising biotechnology; sadly, funding is currently on-hold. It is vital that this or an alternative dedicated funding source be reinstated to support academic and industrial partnerships to develop IB into sustainable real-world applications.
The UK is well positioned to become an international industrial biotech innovation and commercialisation hub, and a major contributor to clean economic growth. Manchester has the potential to be right at the heart of this – especially with the opening of the Future Biomanufacturing Research Hub. Industrial biotechnology was singled out in the Greater Manchester Independent Prosperity Review as being a ‘fast growth opportunity’, where Greater Manchester’s ‘assets and capabilities’ offer scope for future development.
To fully realise this potential, Industrial Biotechnology needs the establishment of its own Sector Deal – just as the Nuclear, Offshore Wind and Artificial Intelligence sectors have received from the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. These deals demonstrate a clear direction and priority from the UK Government and would give investors and industry the certainty they need.
With the right investment, biomanufacturing could support the UK’s Clean Growth aim to take pollution out of economic development and allow us to transition to a new sustainable ‘Materials from Biology’ era.