Making nature work again
Bioengineering makes sustainability sustainable
The last five years have seen a perfect storm of crises in energy, food, industry, and on the environmental front. We were barely over the worst of the covid crunch, when Russia’s attack on Ukraine sent Europe – and the world – into a maelstrom of rising prices and short supply. And then the heatwaves of 2022 brought the focus back to climate change.
Of course, sustainability was always about more than the climate; plastic pollution, resource depletion and environmental degradation were equally at crisis levels, and action was urgently needed. Fortunately, the most important resource was infinitely abundant: human ingenuity. And there’s nothing like a real disaster to spark innovative solutions.
Dozens of scientific startups quickly embraced the smorgasbord of lucrative opportunities these crises presented, chasing everything from green ammonia to better hydroponics. But a handful of them hit upon the ultimate innovation – using nature’s own capacity for sustainability, and employing biomimetics and bioengineering techniques.
Now we have scitech companies developing enzymes and bioagents to reclaim precious metals from electronic waste, including phones and solar panels. Others are eliminating PET plastic pollution with microbes that ‘eat’ plastic bottles and regurgitate chemical feedstocks. Yet another is coaxing microorganisms to turn sunlight and garbage into diesel and jet fuel. Using genes from marine molluscs, we can make bio-ceramics stronger and lighter than steel or Kevlar.
“This is exciting,” says biotechnologist Kyle Larsen, “because we’re implementing large scale bio-factories using a variety of microbes, not only algae, to convert waste into valuable products.”
With the latest CRISPR gene-editing tools, and artificial intelligence systems to help us identify and optimize microbes and enzymes, the applications for bioengineering are limitless. And because these systems require no mining or crops, they contribute to the circular economy, relying on creation rather than extraction.
Putting nature to work – that’s how you make sustainability sustainable!
Warning: Hazardous thinking at work
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