Fifty shades of gray biotechnology - Ramon Ganigue

At the onset of the 21st century our society was confronted with ramping environmental problems, resource scarcity and the challenge of petrochemical detox.

Ramon GanigueFor decades white biotechnology had been in charge of the production of bio-based molecules from sugars using “domesticated” or “engineered” microorganisms.

In parallel, grey (or environmental) biotechnology had focused on waste treatment and sanitation using open mixed cultures, with biogas as the only real product (although not a very lucrative one).

This clear niche differentiation both in aim and approach was shaken by the need to convert our waste into products.

Minimizing both waste generation and resource depletion killed two birds with one stone.

Better off than anticipated

By 2050 we are better off than anticipated. The majority of the human population lives in self-sufficient and autarkic cities powered by solar and wind green electricity, breath clean air and have access to safe drinking water.

Curving the downward spiral we were in 2019 was possible, in part, due to the development of a new generation of waste-to-product biotechnologies.

Conventional waste treatment approaches were replaced by white-biotech-inspired mixed culture bio-production processes, able to deliver commercial-grade products from waste-grade resources. Where needed, engineered strains or communities were used to perform functions not possible/viable with natural microorganisms.

Learning from nature

In parallel, classic white biotech moved beyond monocultures.

Learning from nature, industrial microbiomes benefited from the interaction between different organisms, allowing for more robust, stable and performant processes.

This revolution triggered by a looming crisis was only possible due to breakthroughs in several distinct fields. The genetic potential and metabolic capacities of microorganisms (especially those not yet cultured) were fully unravelled thanks to the advances in meta-omics and the increased “data crunching” capabilities brought in by artificial intelligence.

Hybrid approach

The rise in synthetic biology allowed to improve natural microorganisms, or assemble them in tailored and high-performant communities. Novel high-rate bio-processing techniques were brought to the fore and advances in product recovery allowed to circumvent the bottlenecks of downstream processing.

Of course, non-technological aspects such as the societal acceptance of waste-derived products, as well as a more lenient (yet safe) regulatory framework and incentivizing policies helped to leverage the shift.

Ultimately, the realization of such hybrid approach to circular microbial technologies was only possible when scientists comprehended that between classic environmental and industrial biotechnology, there are many shades of grey.