From their first uses in the fermentation of alcoholic drinks almost 10000 years ago, to their current role in yielding a wide range of compounds such as drugs, soaps and food, microbes are changing the industry for good These tiny organisms, along with the efforts of synbio scientists and years of research, are quickly becoming an important tool for industrial production. As a result, they have an outstanding role in the concept of “biofactories” or “living factories”.
Biofactories are organisms than can produce compounds of interest, usually in high quantities. This includes not only microbes but also other living beings like plants and insects. However, in the last few years, microbes have been slowly taking over a rising number of industrial sectors, outgrowing their counterparts. What makes them so useful in these fields? Why are so many businesses transforming their production systems using microbial biofactories?
Microbes are super-producers!
When microorganisms are engineered for industrial purposes, the main goal is to optimize their production capabilities. Unfortunately, this is not always possible: regular cellular processes can interfere and lower the yield, or the desired product can have some characteristics, such as toxicity, that hinders the process. But when it does work, it tends to work quite well indeed! For example, a bacterial biofactory can dedicate up to 30% of its total protein production to a protein of industrial interest.
Furthermore, microbes have an amazing ability to grow and multiply ̶– some bacteria, under ideal conditions, can double their number every 20 minutes! And these ideal conditions are not exactly a beach house in Miami, so it is cheap to achieve them at industrial levels.
Together, these factors have boosted the use of microbial biofactories in industrial production due to their cost-effectiveness: a great number of bacteria working full time to produce a substance very efficiently!
Not just quantity, but variety
Microbial biofactories can produce very valuable substances for diverse sectors including pharmaceutical and health products. Bacteria and other microorganisms play an important role in the production of drugs, antibiotics, vaccines and vitamins. However, they are also crucial for many other areas!
In the food industry, microbes produce flavours, textures, aromas, or even new foods! In agriculture, microbes are useful for the production of fertilizers and pesticides that are not harmful to the soil. In the energy industry, bacteria can be engineered to produce new sustainable fuels. They can also be tweaked to produce new materials, such as plastics and self-healing constructions. The variety of substances that microbial biofactories can be engineered to produce is an ever-expanding list!
And protecting our planet along the way!
Environmental protection is a global concern that should be considered in every innovation – and microbes are doing their part!
Using biofactories can be the industry´s best bet towards protecting our environment. Microbial biofactories promote sustainability, helping producers and consumers minimize the harmful effects of industrial production on ecosystems. Microbial and other biofactories can serve as alternate sources for producing otherwise limited resources including fuels. Additionally, the versatility of synthetic biology allows scientists to improve the final products from biofactories such as the modification of a final compound until it loses its polluting effects while keeping its function. For example, the plastic from bacteria can be engineered to be easily degradable or the microbe-made fuel can be made emissions-free.
Still a long way to go
To be able to completely exploit the immense potential of microbial biofactories, scientists still need to overcome some challenges. Creating viable biofactories for the industry does not stop with engineering the organism to produce the desired product – this production needs to be worth the cost.
It is no secret that with a small number of bacteria, it is very difficult to make an industrial process affordable and therefore, bacterial growth and multiplication is key to cost-effectiveness. However, it is common that, after making a bacterium produce a specific molecule, it may stop growing. This can happen when the engineered procedure interferes with regular processes of the cell. Researchers have developed different systems to solve this situation, for example, dividing production into two steps: a first phase where the microorganism grows, with no product yield; and a second phase where it generates the product but stops growing. This approach, although successful in many cases, still needs to be adapted to low-cost systems to make it affordable on an industrial scale.
Another great limitation comes during the production of substances that are toxic to the biofactory. If the engineered product ends up killing the organism, little yield will be obtained. Thankfully, a solution to this problem is not far off! Our own research at Rafts4Biotech focuses on this kind of compounds. In our approach, we try to separate the toxic chemicals from the cell’s vulnerable parts by taking advantage of special sections of bacterial membranes called lipid rafts. By engineering the production process into these rafts, we can avoid cell death and increase the production of the compound.
Given their huge promise and potential, scientists around the world are trying to overcome the limitations of microbial biofactories to make them the workhorses of sustainable and affordable industrial production. Perhaps not all the best things come in small packages, but this one sure does!