The Killer App

April 22, 2008

A large well lit room contains hundreds of long tanks.  Pipes strung above the tanks lead down to valves and outlets into the tanks.  The whole operation hums with the high tech feel of a computer chip factory.  The tank closest to you suddenly springs to life.  The clear water that was originally in it is now being injected with a cloudy white liquid and heaters around it are being activated to warm the tank.  Unseen, the tank is being injected with bulk sugars and cellulose from recycled and reclaimed consumer and industrial products as well as several species of engineered microbes.  The microbes go to work communicating with each other and assembling the bulk sugars in and around a translucent tissue scaffold submerged in the tank.  Over a few hours, different microbes and enzymes are injected into and filtered out of the tank and slowly a large structure takes shape in the tank.  Finally, what emerges is a log, not just any piece of wood but the equivalent to a 36”x36”x20’ 2000 year old clear heart piece of Redwood.  This wood will match any old growth forest product but it was produced in less than a day from recycled waste and no logging has taken place.

Do I expect to see this in my lifetime?  Maybe, maybe not.  What it does illustrate is the direction I would like to take industrial biotechnology.  That is, into the realm of true industrial nanobiotechnology, where bioprocessing, high throughput robotics, microfluidics, nanotechnology, and tissue engineering all merge to give us advanced capabilities of using engineered microbes and enzymes to create complex structures.  Sure, such a thing may never prove possible or economically feasible but it will be fun to try.  I look forward to the day when industrial biotechnologists are exploring tissue engineering like our medical counterparts, or when alternative to current liquid bioprocessing like solid-gas phase bioprocessing or super-critical fluids are regularly used to create highly efficient enzymatic catalysts (1).  I also look forward to the day when bioprocess engineers get to create processes with multiple strains of microbes working in concert through quorum sensing. 

In all this I believe our field of industrial biotechnology will be called mature when we can not just process or recycle but up-cycle.  That is, take some waste created from everyday human doings and use the machinery of life to create something much more complex out of it.  Right now we sort of down-cycle or at best side-cycle.  We are working on breaking stuff down into simpler units or maybe units of equivalent complexity.  This is unlike nature in that it is very good at increasing complexity.  Redwood trees take simple units (CO2, water, trace nutrients) and over many, many years turn them into that wonderful structure with all its beauty and complexity.  I’m not expecting to replace Redwood trees; I just eventually want to give them a good rest.

 

References

(1)   Biocatalysis in non-conventional media—ionic liquids, supercritical fluids and the gas phase. S. Cantone, U. Hanefeld, A. Basso, Green Chem., 2007, 9, 954–971.

 

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