What's boiling up in technology - the WEF vision - X - Systems Metabolic Engineerng

A schematics of systems metabolic engineering. Credit: Jeong Wook Lee et Al, Trends in Biotechnology

Algae farm for biofuel production at Coyote Gulch outside Durango, Colorado. Credit: Solix BioSystems.

The last technology named by WEF in its 2016 list of most impactful technologies is System Metabolic Engineering.

This is a fascinating area also for the deep implications it might have. Most of our human “faber” history has found its roots in the capability to extract raw materials from the Earth and process them (in ever more sophisticated ways) to create our “artificial world”, be it housing, rails, and electronics.

There is an exception, an important one: for food and clothes (textiles…) we do not dig under the Earth but by far use the by-product of life (eg cotton from plants, silk from the silk worm, …).

Would it be possible to, say, produce iron through farming rather than extracting it from the soil? At first glance this might appear preposterous but this is what System Metabolic Engineering is aiming at. The “farms” in this case would use microbes, specially engineered to deliver the required material.

>>> The idea of using microbes, and modify microbes, to act as chemical plant is not new. Every living being is, down at its core, a sophisticated chemical plants. We are no exception. We ingest a variety of chemicals (we usually call them "food" and "drink") and our chemical machine produces urea, carbon dioxide, ammonia plus many more...

If you are looking at living creatures as chemical plants it starts to make sense to use living creature as ... chemical plants. And to modify living creature chemical engines to produce those substances we are looking for.

Bacteria that can "digest" hydrocarbons helping in solving oil spills. Or they can be used to produce hydrocarbons. These properties of bacteria have been exploited for a number of years, and scientists are working to find better, more efficient ones. In the last ten years bio-engineering has made possible the modification of bacteria to increase their efficiency as chemical plants or to have them producing specific chemicals.

The evolution of genetic engineering, facilitated by tools like CRISPR, makes it possible to customise a bacteria to produce a certain chemical, by capturing molecules containing the desired elementary components (or atoms) and processing them in the bacterial chemical factory and excreting it. This is what System Metabolic Engineering is after.

The real challenges are not in the modification of a bacteria to "deliver" the desired material, rather it is in the development of a bacterial farm that can produce that material in industrial quantity.

We already have this capability for the production of biofuel (although its effectiveness is not au pair with fossil fuels -Shell discontinued research on biofuel produced by algae in 2011) and in the next decade we should start seeing other areas where bio-engineering can start to substitute mining and extraction from the soil. 

Personally, I feel that a bacteria farm producing iron in such quantity and cost effectiveness that iron ore mining becomes obsolete is something for the next century....

Author - Roberto Saracco

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