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Building a bottom-up bioeconomy

For engineering biology to play a critical role in creating a sustainable bioeconomy we need to rethink the process of industrialisation, say Philip Shapira, Nick Matthews, and Laurence Stamford.

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 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.

Making inroads

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.

Healthcare is another focus. Cells from a patient’s own immune system have been engineered to attack cancerous tissues. And during the Covid-19 pandemic, engineering biology enabled the scale-up of virus testing and aided rapid vaccine development.

Reimagining industrialisation

Yet, while some early products are available, engineering biology is a long way from delivering on its broader promises of transformative change towards more environmentally sustainable economies and societies. That’s why, in order make more headway towards reaching a broader bioeconomy vision, it is time for a fresh, integrated, and holistic approach – addressing the very nature of industrialization to ensure resilience, inclusivity, and environmental and social sustainability.

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

This approach also offers opportunities for rural regions and for reindustrialisation and job creation in areas such as northern England that have been hit hard by the loss and relocation of their traditional manufacturing industries. As an example, our colleague Claire Holland at the Manchester Institute of Innovation Research has put forward proposals for a regional roadmap for industrial bio-revolution in North West England.

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.

Call for action

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. This includes engaging with educators, communities, and citizens.

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. Such processes must bring together stakeholders to explore uncertainties, reflect upon challenges, and decide new courses of action.

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. Policymakers should work towards long-term integration of training and the development of career opportunities within the emerging biomanufacturing industry.

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. For instance, governments can incentivise demand by withdrawing subsidies for petrochemicals and stimulating new markets for biological products through price-support mechanisms and public procurement.

Delivering on biomanufacturing’s promise

Biomanufacturing has huge potential to a new kind of industrialisation. But we believe that much more needs to be done to design and implement policies to support and address the real challenges inherent in scaling engineering biology to construct sustainable, resilient, and expanded bioeconomies that address societal needs.

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.

This blog is based on an article that has been published in Issues in Science and Technology that the Manchester researchers co-authored with US-based experts in the engineering biology field.

Philip Shapira is a Professor with the Manchester Institute of Innovation Research (MIOIR) and the Manchester Synthetic Biology Research Centre for Fine and Speciality Chemicals.

Nick Matthews is an Honorary Research Fellow with MIOIR.

Laurence Stamford is a Senior Lecturer in Sustainable Industrial Systems with the Department of Chemical Engineering and Analytical Science at The University of Manchester.

Blog posts give the views of the author, and are not necessarily those of Alliance Manchester Business School and The University of Manchester.

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