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1 July 2022updated 28 Jul 2022 5:19pm

Engineering biology is key to sustainability

By Dr Neil Dixon and Dr Sophie Nixon

The modern world is facing major challenges that cut across economic and geopolitical boundaries. We face a nexus between climate change, environmental pollution and energy security. As the global population approaches eight billion, there is a critical need to develop new solutions to these environmental challenges. Engineering biology has a major role to play by enabling us to harness nature’s biological tools to find new solutions.

Addressing global challenges with biology

For millennia we have selectively bred plants and animals to produce new and enhanced variations. With our increasing understanding of how the world works on a molecular level, we are able to selectively engineer microorganisms to fulfil roles that give us solutions to the global challenges we face.

 Engineering biology can help us with the four ‘R’s:

  • Replacement – finding new sustainable routes to producing fuels and chemicals to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.
  • Reduction – reducing waste by creating a circular economy.
  • Remediation – using microorganisms and microbiomes to treat environments contaminated with plastics, toxins and other xenobiotics.
  • Removal – capturing carbon to lessen the impact of harmful CO2 emissions.

Embedding engineering biology in strategy

Engineering biology, also internationally known as synthetic biology, is highlighted as one the eight great technologies within the UK government’s Industrial Strategy and aligns to its Industrial Strategy Grand Challenge of clean growth. It has also been recognised at an international level for its connection to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. This recognition of engineering biology’s role in our future is the first step to addressing environmental challenges. However, to ensure it can be an effective option for society, there need to be robust policies to reinforce it.

Highlighting a need for policy review

Biotechnology is underpinned by genetically modifying organisms and utilising and engineering their biological mechanisms to apply them in novel ways. But the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is an emotive topic, driven by resistance to GM crops within the EU and UK. While this is a complex area that requires a balanced approach to understand the risk and benefits, a broader policy review is required to ensure we can benefit from biotechnology while reducing the potential for any negative outcomes.  

Work needs to be carried out to help communicate genetic technologies to the public. The extent to which these technologies and systems are used in the manufacture of essential goods is not fully understood by wider society. Currently, a large majority of our life-saving medicines are manufactured in GMOs. The most famous example, insulin – the human protein used for the treatment of diabetes in more than 400 million patients globally – is produced from genetically modified bacteria.

Leaving the EU has provided the UK an opportunity to reconsider the rules and application of genetic technologies. In fact, the government has committed to a broad review of GM regulation in England. This is an important opportunity for all within science and technology, NGOs, and individuals interested in reducing or remediating the negative human impact on the climate and environment. It gives them the opportunity to engage in an evidence-based policy approach on the use, risks and benefits of genetic technologies to address environmental challenges.

A focus on investment

Global problems require global solutions. The scale of the climate crisis and environmental pollution can only be tackled through targeted and large-scale investment. International coordination is required to bring together all stakeholders including governments, charities, NGOs and relevant industries. While the energy sector is ultimately responsible for producing the fuels that have damaged the climate so dramatically, it is also the sector at the forefront of delivering on our net-zero targets. Engagement with this sector is therefore essential in order for biotechnological research to feed into these activities and facilitate a decarbonised future.

Looking to the future

Solving global problems requires a multifaceted array of solutions at scale. Engineering biology has a key role in this. By coupling biotechnological approaches with environmental science and engineering, there is enormous potential to deliver disruptive and innovative solutions.

Researchers at the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology (MIB) are committed to developing these disruptive biotechnology solutions. Currently, they are devising methods to produce fuels more sustainability, converting biomass, plastic and other waste materials into valuable chemicals to help boost a circular economy, and harnessing microbial carbon-fixing processes to sequester CO2 and convert it to useful products.

Recent worldwide efforts in response to the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated the speed at which biotechnological solutions can be found and implemented. The question that remains is whether we, the human race, will act in time to address potentially catastrophic and irreversible environmental damage. Engineering biology can help us get there.

Biotechnology is one of the University of Manchester’s research beacons – exemplars of interdisciplinary collaboration and cross-sector partnerships that lead to pioneering discoveries and improve the lives of people around the world.

Dr Neil Dixon is a Reader in Biotechnology and Dr Sophie Nixon is a Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council David Phillips and Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw Research Fellow, both at The University of Manchester. To find out more, go to: uom.link/engineering-biology

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