How Bioengineering Is Saving The Planet
In Honor of Earth Day 2021
At ZBiotics, we talk a lot about bioengineering because we are passionate about the potential of this technology and all the good it can do for the planet. While we do not want to underestimate the very reasonable concerns regarding the potential risks of using bioengineering for the wrong reasons or in irresponsible ways, we know that with a careful, leveled approach, this technology can immeasurably improve the world.
In honor of Earth Day, we thought we’d highlight some of the truly incredible things that bioengineering is doing right now to help humans live more sustainably on this planet.
By leveraging microorganisms – such as bacteria and yeast – to create ingredients and industrial products in mass quantities, organizations are creating new solutions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, limit waste, and lessen the strain we put on our planet. Here are some downright mind-blowing solutions, organized into four broad categories:
- Using Bioengineering Instead of Animals
- Using Bioengineering Instead of Plants
- Using Bioengineering to Create Eco-friendly Materials
- Using Bioengineering for Greenhouse Gas Sequestration and Removal
Using Bioengineering Instead of Animals
By the time you finish reading this paragraph, four acres of rainforests in Brazil (i.e. about three football fields) will be replaced with farmland, largely to grow cattle and animal feed (satellite data). Livestock farming is much more demanding on the planet than many realize. It requires converting huge areas of critical carbon sinks (such as the Amazon rainforests) into cattle farms, which produce rather than sequester greenhouse gases. That land and those carbon-sequestering forests are forever lost to us.
Today, many bioengineering companies are aiming to reduce animal use with technology. This will decrease the need to devote such vast farmlands and tremendous resources to livestock. Through engineered microbes, these companies produce alternatives to animal products, such as meat, dairy, eggs, leather, gelatin, and collagen.
An early but still incredible example of biotechnology saving the planet is Genentech. As the pioneers of recombinant DNA technology, Genentech made insulin much more accessible to people with diabetes by producing human insulin using bacteria instead of animals.
They did this by expressing human genes in bacteria for the first time. The synthetic human insulin they produced in 1978 was a breakthrough, because it meant that we no longer needed to extract insulin from the animal pancreas to treat diabetics. Prior to that, it took 23,500 animals to produce one pound of insulin, while we can now yield the same amount with bacteria in a fermenter approximately the size of your refrigerator.
You’ve probably heard of Impossible Foods, the company making better veggie burgers using bioengineered yeast. They do so by engineering yeast to produce a key ingredient called soy leghemoglobin, which gives their burgers that signature meaty flavor and makes them “bleed.”
An Impossible Burger uses 87% less water and produces 89% fewer greenhouse gases than a traditional burger. With 90% of their customers being meat-eaters, that’s a lot of meat being swapped out for their more eco-friendly option.
How can you wear leather without raising or killing a single cow? With this question in mind, Modern Meadow created a bio-leather product called Zoa. Similar to Genentech, genetic engineering played a significant role; scientists altered yeast to produce collagen, the animal protein that is the main component of leather.
The end product generates 80% less greenhouse gas than traditional leather and 30% less than several conventional synthetic materials. And due to the fact that it’s easier to control a growing cell culture than the growing skin of a live cow, this yeast-based process can actually produce higher quality leather, an amazing fact not lost on visitors who saw Zoa featured in an exhibit at New York’s MoMA a couple years ago.
Using Bioengineering Instead of Plants
Similar to raising animals, growing plants creates a huge environmental impact.
It requires a tremendous amount of water and nutrients. According to the World Bank, agriculture accounts for 70% of all freshwater withdrawals globally, a ratio that’s only going to increase – to an estimated 85% – as the population grows and agricultural production rises to meet it (by an estimated 50% before 2050).
In addition, clearing huge swaths of land for plant agriculture reduces biodiversity and contributes dramatically to greenhouse gas emissions, soil erosion, and pollution.
Here too, though, bioengineering is making a difference. Some companies have engineered microorganisms to produce plant-based resources. Because these microbes can grow in bioreactors, they take much less space for growth. And through bioreactor process optimization, the yield of the biological processes they perform can be maximized without compromising natural ecosystems.
One such company is Amyris, which uses bioengineered yeast to produce anti-malarial compounds more efficiently and effectively than traditional agriculture. Indeed, if it weren’t for Amyris, malaria treatment would be nowhere near as widely available as it is today.
Every year, 200 million people are affected by malaria. The primary first-line treatment for malaria, according to WHO, is an antimalarial compound called artemisinin. Unfortunately, obtaining artemisinin from plants – specifically, the Chinese Sweet Wormwood plant – is challenging because the artemisinin content is usually very low (varying between 0.01-0.50% dry weight (citation)), making cultivation difficult, time consuming, and resource-intensive.
In 2005, Amyris tackled this issue by engineering yeast to produce the drug instead (citation). Using this strategy, Amyris and their partner Sanofi treated 120 million malaria patients in one year. It’s an incredible example of bioengineering at work. Thanks to Amyris’ technology, we no longer have to rely on resource-intensive wormwood cultivation to produce this important therapeutic compound.
Like therapeutic compounds, flavor extraction from plants is quite resource intensive, due to the fact that the flavor compound constitutes only a small weight percentage of the plant. Consequently, to obtain a plant-based flavor, we have traditionally needed to spend a large amount of resources growing all the non-flavor portions of the plant as well.
An example from the brewing industry is the hop plant, a water-intensive plant used by brewers to impart flavor to beer.
Berkeley Brewing Science has bioengineered yeast to directly impart those same hop-like flavors without having to add actual hops. Not only does this give the brewer increased control over the flavor of the beer, but it also reduces the environmental impact of the brewing process by eliminating the need to grow, harvest, and transport hops.
Today, the company uses the same technology to produce beer and wine with a touch of flavors such as pineapple, mango, and melon. By determining the key compounds in plants, they insert the corresponding genes into their yeast strain to create the same fruit flavor, but without having to grow the fruit. Overall, it’s a good example of how genetic engineering and microbes can replace the need to grow a whole plant.
Palm oil is ubiquitous and growing. Indeed, US imports of palm oil grew 485% over the last decade (citation). You can understand how abundant it is by paying attention at the supermarket, where you’ll find palm oil in roughly 50% of all products on the shelf, from soaps to lipstick to ice cream. Palm oil also happens to be one of the leading causes of tropical rainforest deforestation, destroying ecosystems and contributing significantly to climate change.
To address this problem, C16 Biosciences is bioengineering yeast to make palm oil in a fermenter producing the oil inside yeast cells instead of in a palm tree. This may end up eliminating the need for commercial palm-oil plantations, which today cover about 18.7 million hectares of land worldwide – about the size of the state of Missouri (citation). Imagine reallocating all that land to reforestation instead. Bioengineering makes that future possible.
Using Bioengineering to Create Eco-friendly Materials
From manufacturing to packaging, industrial processes have been incredibly successful at producing materials to make our lives easier. Yet, in the process, we heavily rely on chemistry that takes a huge toll on the environment, primarily by generating harmful and nonrenewable waste products. Over time, these waste products diffuse into the soil and surrounding water system, poisoning the ecosystem.
Today, we’re seeing organizations working to find ways to replace these harmful chemical processes with more sustainable microbiological solutions.
Nitrogen fertilizers are responsible for an astounding 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions. That’s largely due to fertilizer runoff into local water sources, which causes toxic and polluting algal blooms.
Joyn Bio is tackling this massive environmental problem by creating genetically engineered bacteria that reduce the need for nitrogen fertilizers. These bacteria “fix” atmospheric nitrogen in a form that allows plants to use it, with no toxic runoff. Certain plants like soybeans already worked this way – partnering with natural, nitrogen-fixing bacteria. But Joyn Bio is extending that functionality to previously incompatible cereal crops like corn, rice, and wheat.
What if all packing materials and foams were made of mushrooms? That question sounds ridiculous, but amazingly it is already becoming a reality.
Typical packaging materials are petroleum or animal-based and unsustainable, especially because they lead to the accumulation of highly non-degradable waste. Ecovative is using a thread-like fungal growth structure called mycelium to make textiles and foams for everything from purses to foam applicators for cosmetics. By growing mycelia to make these highly functional products, Ecovative is making a truly disposable, biodegradable product that eliminates both the unsustainable manufacturing practices of current foams and textiles and also the essentially non-degradable waste that piles up in our landfills from these “disposable” products.To improve the production outcome, the company partnered with the Cornell igEM research team, who used genetic engineering to give the fungi resistance to contaminating mold species.
This upgrade could make fungi-based materials more competitive and feasible than their less sustainable alternatives.
The conventional dyes in your clothes are often highly toxic, including the indigo blue in your jeans. It requires 1,000 pounds of petroleum to produce one pound of dye. In addition, fixing the dye requires harsh chemicals like cyanide and formaldehyde. These contribute heavily to the toxicity of textile industry wastewater – about 2.5 billion gallons of which gets released annually into the environment by market-leading textile makers. For example, the International Garment Processors (IGP) plant in El Paso, TX generates one million gallons of wastewater per day! (citation)
Huue makes sustainable indigo blue with the motto nature is the best artist. Investigating how sugar got naturally converted to dye, the Huue team engineered microbes that mimicked the process. The team predicts that biosynthetic indigo could reduce the use of petroleum and the release of toxic chemicals by a factor of five.
Using Bioengineering for Greenhouse Gas Sequestration and Removal
Currently, humanity produces roughly 40 gigatons of CO2 per year, and that number is growing. Without carbon-negative measures (i.e. activities that actively remove carbon) global temperatures will increase to levels that will cause catastrophic changes to the environment. Reducing carbon emissions alone is not enough anymore, and active sequestration and removal of greenhouse gases are needed.
Incredibly, we can genetically engineer microbes to actually pull greenhouse gases – such as CO2 and methane – from the air (when that air is bubbled through water) and use them as building blocks to make useful products. This not only actively removes those greenhouse gases from our atmosphere but also creates sustainable, useful, carbon-negative products such as bioplastics that would otherwise be created via unsustainable petroleum-based practices.
Up until the establishment of Mango Materials, turning pollution into sustainable products was a far-fetched idea. No longer. The bioreactors created by Mango Materials capture methane (a greenhouse gas that traps 25x more heat than CO2 (citation)) and use bacterial fermentation to turn that methane into a biodegradable polymer called polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA). This biopolymer can be used to replace all sorts of plastic or polymer-based products, such as electronics casings, toys, bottles, and packaging. Not only are they preventing greenhouse gases from warming our planet, but they are also turning them into products that replace unsustainable and ecologically damaging plastics.
Right now, a salmon farm primarily feeds their salmon on smaller fish caught in the ocean – 300 billion of these fish each year, actually. This has resulted in massive overfishing of small feed-fish, causing a huge deficit in a key stratum of the marine food chain. Another concern is that this feeding method can result in the accumulation of toxic materials in the salmon itself – materials like polybrominated diphenyl ether (citation), which is strongly associated with cancer when consumed by humans (citation).
NovoNutrients solves this problem by providing a nutritious and non-toxic feedstock for farmed fish that doesn’t require overfishing AND removes CO2 from the atmosphere. Similar to Mango Materials, NovoNutrients captures industrial waste gas and uses microbes to convert CO2 into biomass that can be used as fish feed. This solves two problems at once: (1) it prevents the CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere, and (2) it generates a fish feed that is far more sustainable than what we currently use to feed farmed fish.
Bioengineering and the Good It Can Do for Our Planet
This is by no means a comprehensive list, but merely some illustrative examples of things that are happening right now in bioengineering. It provides us with a path to reset the damage we’ve done for the last century and grow sustainably while reducing our strain on the environment and the global ecosystem.
There are many things we need to do, but bioengineering is an incredibly powerful tool we can leverage in righting the wrongs humanity has done to this planet with agriculture and industrial chemistry. Bioengineering often gets a bad rap, but when used responsibly and for the right reasons – as in the examples above – it can be such an incredible asset for the world.