Rising to the Challenge
Engineering biology can help us rethink the entire process of industrialisation.
Reaching net zero will require fundamental changes both to the way we live and to our economy. Indeed, there has never been a more pressing time to usher in transformative innovation than as we strive to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
One such opportunity is the potential for engineering biology to play a role in creating a sustainable bioeconomy. Engineering biology – which combines biology, engineering, and information technology to produce biobased materials and products – has the potential to advance sustainable biomanufacturing around the globe. The ambition is to not only transform products we already use, but also to create new ones, making use of nature’s intrinsic diversity.
However, engineering biology still requires concerted action by policymakers, researchers, businesses and communities to achieve its societal and environmental promises. For engineering biology to play a critical role in creating a sustainable bioeconomy we need to rethink the process of industrialisation.
The new approaches enabled by advances in engineering biology could be used to bolster more equitable and resilient societies and foster sustainable ‘circular’ economies that can reduce waste and pollution, reuse materials, and more readily address climate and other environmental challenges.
Indeed, some engineering biology products are already making early inroads into markets. For example, multiple companies are offering alternatives to animal products that use ingredients derived from engineered microbes and plants.
Other companies are converting waste industrial gases and modifying proteins through biological processes into novel materials and textiles. Biological nitrogen fertilisers, which directly target genes in corn roots, have recently entered the market, replacing petrochemical fertilisers.
Replacing petrochemical-based production and consumption systems with biobased alternatives will not inevitably or automatically lead to more sustainable, less polluting systems.
Yet, while some early products are available, engineering biology is a long way from delivering on its broader promises of transformative change toward more environmentally sustainable economies and societies. That’s why, in order to make more headway towards reaching a broader bioeconomy vision, it is time for a fresh, integrated, and holistic approach.
One way to move towards this vision involves rethinking the biofactory. In particular, biomanufacturing should be fostered as a distributed system. In this model the production of biological products – chemicals, fuels, materials, and medicines – would occur in green biorefineries located close to local sustainable sources of microbial feedstocks and raw materials as well as end users.
Such distributed biomanufacturing could use locally unique bioengineering solutions to flexibly make a range of products for users. This model would create local jobs and expertise, nurture relationships between communities and producers, and improve resilience by reducing dependence on global supply chains.
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Towards a circular bioeconomy
To make sustainability the heart of the bioeconomy, the practice of bioengineering must also change from trying to engineer a single feedstock into a single mass product, to creating platforms that enable agile biomanufacturers to use multiple inputs and create multiple products, both in parallel and in series.
Furthermore, replacing petrochemical-based production and consumption systems with biobased alternatives will not inevitably or automatically lead to more sustainable, less polluting systems. New initiatives must avoid ‘problem shifting’ whereby dealing with one sustainability issue causes or intensifies another.
Instead, projects should be developed with an eye on circular biomanufacturing. In these systems, biomass is sustainably grown or reclaimed for use, with attention to recycling or ensuring safe biological decomposition.
Most biomanufacturing starts with the promise of promoting sustainability and addressing global challenges but has often not delivered on that pledge. If biomanufacturing is to actively make a positive difference in addressing global challenges, benefitting society and the planet, it must explicitly make these ultimate aims part of the mission from the start.
We propose four principles to guide future policy development:
- Integrate diverse perspectives – to avoid disruptive impacts on people, communities, and the environment, engineering biology must further broaden to encompass perspectives beyond the lab.
- Embed ongoing evaluation and learning – engineering biology needs to go beyond existing evaluation methodologies, such as life-cycle assessment, to create broader, more deliberative processes.
- Nurture local capacity – for a distributed bioeconomy to provide high-quality jobs, it will be necessary to rethink how local labour is trained and valued.
- Be outcome-oriented – part of building and scaling bioeconomies involves developing and implementing demand-side policies to encourage the purchase and use of sustainably manufactured biomaterials.