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  1. Spotlight
23 July 2021

Supporting the UK’s transition to net zero

By Nigel Scrutton, director, and Kirk J Malone, director of commercialisation, of the UK Future Biomanufacturing Research Hub.

By The University of Manchester

The pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the power of biotechnology to positively impact global society. It has delivered a pathway that is leading us out of the crisis: by rapidly identifying the Sars-CoV-2 coronavirus, delivering quick and accurate mass public testing, and discovering and manufacturing effective vaccines at record speed. While there is no vaccine for climate change, biomanufacturing promises to provide key technologies to tackle this global environmental emergency.

Industrial biotechnology is the term that describes the application of nature’s catalysts (enzymes) and biological systems to synthesise chemicals, materials, food and fuels. Industrial biomanufacturing takes this approach and works to upscale it, creating opportunities to sustainably develop and produce the essential chemicals that underpin modern society. The process provides several benefits: the inherent, exquisite selectivity of enzymes may lead to products with fewer impurities, which in turn can lead to lower manufacturing costs, lower energy consumption, and enable the use of renewable biological and waste resources as feedstock.

The UK government recognised the economic potential of biotechnology in its Growing the Bioeconomy report, which set out a national strategy to 2030. The government’s aspiration is for the UK to become a global leader in developing bio-based solutions. This is underpinned by four strategic goals that aim to: capitalise on the UK’s world-class research, development and innovation base; maximise productivity and potential from existing UK bioeconomy assets; deliver real, measurable benefits for the UK economy; and create the right societal and market conditions to allow innovative bio-based products and services to thrive.

The aim of this strategy is to create a suitable environment to double the size of the UK’s bioeconomy from £22bn (2014) to £440bn by 2030. Industrial biomanufacturing is aligned with this goal, and supports all four of the government’s Industrial Strategy Grand Challenges:

(1) Clean growth – providing sustainable alternatives to fossil-derived materials, chemicals and fuels.
(2) AI and the data economy – increasing applied biomanufacturing through fusing AI and big data approaches with lab-based techniques.
(3) Ageing society – biomanufacturing novel medicines to help meet the needs of an ageing society.
(4) Future of mobility – supporting advanced bio-derived fuels and bio-inspired lightweight materials.

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The UK is recognised as having a world-leading research base that could act as the bedrock to grow the bioeconomy. In 2012, public sector investment in the UK’s Synthetic Biology for Growth Programme led to the establishment of six synthetic biology research centres (SBRCs), which have provided new capabilities for the engineering of biology. One of these SBRCs, SYNBIOCHEM, sits within the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology (MIB) and has established innovative and sustainable biological routes to the production of fine and speciality chemicals. The leadership of the MIB in this field and wider industrial biotechnology was recognised by the award of the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education.

In the same year, the UK Future Biomanufacturing Research Hub was established. Also based at the MIB, the hub is pioneering new bioproduction technologies. Its purpose is to research sustainable biomanufacturing processes through industrial and academic collaborations with major international companies in the energy, chemical, personal care and pharmaceutical sectors, along with a variety of SMEs that are developing innovative technologies.

However strong the UK’s academic base is in biotechnology, by its very nature, the research is predominantly focused at lower technology research levels (TRLs) 1–3. In order to accelerate the translation of new biomanufacturing technologies into commercial applications, we need to ensure that fundamental research is well-financed and that we establish the right support to drive innovation through the feasibility stage to pilot-scale demonstration and into products. This support needs to be twofold. Firstly, through infrastructure: we need an expanded network of intermediary-scale fermenters and bioreactors, located in close proximity to the academic base, but open to industrial use, which would better link discovery science with production. Secondly, we need dedicated funding that would allow industry to engage in biotechnology research and development, and de-risk the evaluation of new approaches and stimulate private sector investment in sustainable biomanufacturing.

With the UK hosting the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in November, now is the time to ensure public investment is in place to seize industrial biomanufacturing’s potential to grow the UK’s bioeconomy. This would attract wider investment, mobilising international finance to grow the talent pipeline at the frontier of global net zero. There is a risk to the UK economy of not supporting biomanufacturing at higher TRLs. The pharmaceutical, chemicals and materials manufacturing sectors are highly competitive and global in nature. Failure to stimulate sustainable and clean biomanufacturing may have a detrimental effect on our existing companies, as other countries overtake the UK in their competitiveness and technologies. However, with the right support, industrial biomanufacturing offers major opportunities to grow a more circular economy and reach net-zero targets. Its technologies can ensure the optimal use of resources to meet the needs of modern society in terms of health, energy, chemicals and materials, and the environment.

Learn more about how biotechnology is helping the UK to reach net zero.

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