Do microbes hold the key for the chemicals of the future?
In the current linear economy, most products and services require continuous and increasing extraction of raw materials to maintain economic and business growth. Employing circular economy principles, where technical and biological materials are cycled at their highest value and utility at all times for as long as possible, can help to negate and reduce the necessity for new material. However, in the long term, it is highly probable that new kinds of resources will be required to maintain a prosperous global economy.
In a recent article published on the World Economic Forum Agenda blog, Sang Yup Lee, professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), argued that the global economy could be significantly better off by shifting industry chemical inputs to living organisms from. He wrote:
“We already use agricultural products in this way, of course—we wear cotton clothes and live in wooden houses—but plants are not the only source of ingredients. Microbes arguably offer even more potential, in the long term, to make inexpensive materials in the incredible variety of properties that we now take for granted. Rather than digging the raw materials of modern life from the ground, we can instead “brew” them in giant bioreactors filled with living microorganisms.”
The range of chemicals and materials that can be created using metabolic engineering, systems biology, evolutionary engineering and synthetic biology is increasing every year, as we covered last week in our piece, From silk to milk: Why growing everything could be a 21st century gamechanger, with many other potential uses including in the pharmaceutical industry and a range of production processes.
The prospect of a renewable source of materials is clear business opportunity worth exploring, particularly as the technology improves and becomes more cost competitive with conventional chemical production.
Of course, there are barriers that exist, including ambiguous regulation, the need to avoid clashes with agriculture in terms of land use and of course continued scientific advancement.