Bioeconomy

Do you want bio or circular economy? You need ‘synbio’

Synthetic biology is one of the critical ingredients in the bioeconomy.

Written by: Pekka Pekkala 2018 — 

Synthetic biology sounds like a dream come true: designing new biological organisms with mathematical computer models that will produce new and improved components to a variety of needs in the chemical industry. Perhaps the most exciting aspect of “synbio” lays in its ability to replace most of the oil-based chemicals. This will be one of the key elements in building the bio-based ecosystem, where most of the materials will be produced from renewable or biomaterials instead of oil.

VTT’s research professor Merja Penttilä says the synthetic biology solutions are expanding to all areas of industrial applications. The time to start applying it is right now, because the design, testing, and manufacturing processes are becoming exponentially faster:

“We can mathematically model and plan all the phases of construction of these new types of cell factories. VTT has the whole platform available from the state-of-the-art mathematical modelling systems to the traditional methods of bioproduction. This novel combination of computation and microbial cell factory systems speeds up the process significantly.”

VTT’s long history with eukaryotic microbes has made the company an expert in yeast and mold based genome engineering using, e.g., CRISPR technologies. These are the organisms that are the most sought-after solutions in biofactories around the world. They can provide new solutions to processing bio-based materials such as lignocellulose, a significant interest in forest industry-heavy Finland. Also, waste, even carbon dioxide, can be used.

However, combining biology and engineering is not an easy task, and sometimes, it is even harder to imagine the possible solutions. As Lars Peter Lindfors, senior vice president of technology at Finnish oil refining and renewable energy company Neste, explains:

“We know there are endless opportunities with synthetic biology. VTT has been our research partner on multiple occasions before, and in this case, they have to be much more forthcoming than usual, imagining alternative solutions using synbio.”

The classical idea behind synthetic biology is to bring predictability into biology. In electrical engineering, you can design a fully functional device like a mobile phone from available components with minimal testing. This is because all the parts needed are well-standardized. In traditional biology, building a reliable production organism for industrial purposes requires massive amounts of trial and error to create stable products. Synbio plans to change all that. You could design a cell factory from components, developing DNA just for your purposes and making it functional with minimal testing, avoiding lengthy trial phases typical for microbial cell factory establishment. Before we entirely arrive on that stage, automation and robotics will enable us to rapidly build and test large numbers of strain variants to find improved ones – and learn from the work to make design rules.

Some of the Finnish companies are already combining biotechnical research with modern technologies. One great example is Roal Ltd, one of the world’s leading enzyme companies. Jari Vehmaanperä, global R&D director for Roal, sees the lab-scale projects VTT makes as one of the critical ingredients in their innovation process:

“We have worked with VTT since late 1980’s producing enzymes for different industrial applications like baking, food, technical and feed industries plus developing our cell factories. The latest project was about developing industrial enzymes for our production host Trichoderma fungus with CRISPR tool.”

Merja Penttilä sees synthetic biology as the perfect tool for bioeconomic solutions because biotechnology can use almost anything as raw material.

With synthetic biology, we can in principle take almost any waste material and use this natural phenomenon to create new products literally from trash or from thin air.

Penttilä went on to comment, “Everyone knows what happens to most of the organic waste in nature: they naturally begin to deteriorate and turn into compost. This is what microbes do. But with synthetic biology, we can in principle take almost any waste material and use this natural phenomenon to create new products literally from trash or from thin air. Synbio is absolutely an essential solution when we imagine new circular ecosystems.”

Further information: Merja Penttilä, merja.penttila@vtt.fi, +358407000163

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