Biotechnology – driver for sustainability with huge potential
Small but mighty: Microorganisms and enzymes are seen as the industry's beacon of hope, especially for plastics production. In a double interview, two experts take a closer look at the potential of white biotechnology.
Bacteria, fungi, animal cells — in the world of such microorganisms and their industrial use, Professor Ralf Takors is considered one of the leading international minds. The 57-year-old is director of the Institute of Biochemical Engineering at the University of Stuttgart. Gernot Jäger (39), who holds a doctorate in biotechnology, heads the Competence Center for Biotechnology at Covestro in Leverkusen. Here, we talk to them both about the potential of white biotechnology and what makes it so interesting for industry and its production processes.
Professor Takors, as bad as the Corona pandemic is, it has proved to be a blessing for biotechnology. It is largely thanks to biotechnology that effective vaccines could be developed so quickly. What else does biotechnology have to offer?
Takors: Biotechnology has indeed advanced medicine a long way in recent times. In the example given, it was RNA technology that was used for vaccine production against Corona. Here, we are talking about “red” biotechnology which is used for medical purposes. “Green” biotechnology in turn is used in plant breeding and food production, for example. And in industry, such as the chemical sector, the "white" biotechnology comes into play.
Can you give examples of this as well?
Takors: Biotechnology uses living cells, microorganisms or parts of them, such as enzymes, to achieve extremely diverse products and processes. For example, the yield of plants can be increased or their resistance to diseases and environmental influences improved. In addition, it is possible to produce plant ingredients that are in turn used for industrial or medical purposes. Another area is food production, where biotechnology has a long tradition. We see this, for example, in the manufacture of wine, beer and cheese. And also in the breakdown of lactose in dairy products or the refinement of flour for optimal dough. In the chemical industry, biotechnology has also proven its worth in numerous different processes, but there is still a lot of potential. Let me name citric acid or glutamate, which are produced exclusively by biotechnology, as examples of success. Or lactic acid, which is used to produce biodegradable packaging.
When we think of industry, most people probably think of large plants and heavy machinery. What can microscopically small organisms and enzymes do in such an environment?
Takors: Quite a lot. More than 20 years of academic and industrial research have shown me that. The microorganisms, cells or enzymes are located in so-called bioreactors, which can hold several tens of thousands of liters. Depending on the process, for example, sugars ferment into ethanol with the help of yeast fungi, while bacteria convert carbon sources into amino acids or enzymes break down unwanted compounds, and so on. A major advantage of biotechnology is that all this can be done under mild conditions, i.e. without high temperatures or aggressive chemicals.
Plastics production in particular is very energy-intensive and is still predominantly dependent on oil. What is Covestro doing to make production more environmentally friendly?
Jäger: The entire company is focusing on the circular economy. It will become the new guiding principle in business and society. For us at Covestro, that means we want to move away from crude oil as a raw material in the long term. And biotechnology helps us to use alternative raw materials, such as plastic waste or plants. Here, we are making nature's millions of years-old construction kit our own and using it for chemical processes that we develop together with partners from academia and other sectors.
Takors: Application-oriented research in academia and science-based companies — that's exactly the right combination in my eyes. Take for example, the new BIOS project, which involves nine partners from six European countries and is coordinated by the Stuttgart Research Center for Systems Biology. The aim here is to develop bio-intelligent technologies in the interplay between biotechnology, information technology including artificial intelligence and automation technology. Also the NEnzy junior research group recently established by Covestro, which works closely with RWTH Aachen University, follows this principle. I myself used to work at Evonik for several years before taking over the chair of the Institute of Bioprocess Engineering at the University of Stuttgart, so I know both worlds well. Academia and industry — we have to expand this approach.
What does that mean in concrete terms?
Takors: Biotechnology is a cross-sectional field in which extremely high levels of competence from many areas must come together: Microbiology, biochemistry, genetics, engineering, and computer science. To achieve this, interdisciplinarity within the scientific community itself must be increased. And on the other hand, we also need more networking and strategic alliances outside — not only between science and industry, but also between different sectors. Chemicals, food and animal feed, pharmaceuticals, detergents, paper, textiles, renewable energies. Biotechnology plays a role everywhere.
Jäger: And it's best for individual companies to include biotechnology in their planning and processes right from the start. Because the prospects are extremely promising: biotechnological tools are becoming ever more sophisticated, processes ever more precise. And bold ideas doesn’t need to remain dreams. We also see this in our own research and development.
Jäger: For example, our Bio4PUR project could take the production of the important basic chemical aniline to a new dimension. We have succeeded in obtaining the necessary carbon completely from plant-based raw materials instead of crude oil – thanks to a special microorganism. Besides this project, we are researching how enzymes can be used to improve the recycling of plastic waste, another source of non-fossil raw materials.
This sounds very promising, as does the whole field of white biotechnology. A 2021 study predicts high global market growth in the coming years — around 15 percent per year on average. Do you think something like that is possible?
Takors: I'm an engineer, not an economist, so this is of course a question I can't answer validly. But I can say that white biotechnology is a key topic with huge potential and a driver for sustainability and the circular economy. Innovative solutions are needed to meet the challenges of the coming decades — be it to guarantee the food supply, to drive the transformation of industry toward a circular economy, or to protect our climate. Using all smart technologies in combination is needed to meet these challenges. And biotechnology is a key enabler.