How the Bioeconomy Sustains People and the Planet

How the Bioeconomy Sustains People and the Planet

Penicillin, the first true antibiotic, on display at the Nobel Museum. Penicillin, the first true antibiotic, originally produced by Penicillium moulds, is an early example of a life-changing bioeconomy product. Photo taken at Nobel Museum.
Source: Flickr.
Does money really make the world go round, or could it be the consortia of microorganisms that surround and inhabit us? Microbes are naturally responsible for some of the most fundamental processes influencing human and environmental health. But where does the economy fit into this equation? Or, perhaps more pertinently, where do microbes fit into the economy?

Looking to organisms that can biologically convert materials considered to be of low or lesser value (e.g., waste, pollutants) to products that are more highly valued (e.g., food, energy)—and to do so in a repeatable or sustainable fashion—not only generates revenue but is also integral to the future of our planet and society. It is this life-changing and innovative thinking that motivates scientists, manufacturers and policymakers alike to seek methods to use raw materials and renewable resources to power a biobased economy.

But what is a bioeconomy? Can we adequately (and ethically) attribute monetary value to biological resources? How can microbes grease the gears of innovation, ingenuity and sustainability and, ultimately, offer solutions to humanity’s most pressing challenges? Answering these questions will be crucial to fully comprehend the power of biological resources and the plausibility of using them to create sustainable systems.

How is the Bioeconomy Defined?

Using Biological Resources to Produce Goods and Services

Well-loved foods such as wine and cheese shown here are bioeconomy products.
Many well-loved food and beverage items are bioeconomy products.

According to Timothy Donohue, Ph.D.—ASM Past President, University of Wisconsin Foundation Fetzer Professor of Bacteriology and Director of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC)—“The bioeconomy is a relatively new term.” Yet, the practice of using biological resources to produce goods or services has been around for millennia. “We depend on the bioeconomy every day. When you go to the store and buy a loaf of bread, you're buying a product that was made by yeast,” Donohue explained. The oldest evidence of bread-making was discovered in a 14,500-year-old Natufian site in the Jordan desert. “We’re surrounded by the bioeconomy,” Donohue continued. “If you like wine or beer or soy sauce, those are all bioeconomy products. [For each of these items] there’s a biological catalyst that's making the product from a biological material.”

A Venn diagram shows the intersection of the social, environmental and economic factors that make up the bioeconomy. A Venn diagram shows the intersection of the social, environmental and economic factors that make up the bioeconomy.
Source: Ashley Hagen, M.S.
Still, when it comes to defining the term “bioeconomy,” things get more complicated. While a number of countries have adopted formal definitions or frameworks for the term, the U.S. has yet to do so.

Michèle Friend, Ph.D., is an associate professor at The George Washington University who teaches philosophy of logic, mathematics, science and the environment. She also has an appointment at the University of Lille Nord de France, where she teaches bioeconomics and is working with a group of biochemists who are evaluating how to use enzymes to break down polymers and produce biofuels and bioplastics. Friend explained that, at its core, the economy is a social construct. Neoclassical economics looks strictly at the flow of money within a system, and, as a result, many people understand only that the bioeconomy involves the flow of money when biological elements are involved. “When biology goes into the factory, [many think only about] how the economics play out,” she elaborated.

Indeed, this is part of it. The bioeconomy uses biotechnology and biomass (renewable organic matter that comes from plants and animals) to produce goods, services and energy. This requires an understanding of how to manipulate and apply genetic, genomic and molecular processes and mechanisms to improve industrial processes and develop new products. Yet, official definitions for the bioeconomy vary based on differences in vision surrounding biotechnology, bioresources and bioecology, with some favoring broader definitions and others favoring more narrow ones (e.g., excluding food, beverage and forestry and focusing more on biological innovations).

Preserving Harmony Between Society, the Economy and the Environment

Friend favors a broader definition and promotes taking our understanding of the bioeconomy a step further by introducing the concept of ecological economics, an interdisciplinary field that underpins the bioeconomy. Ecological economics considers societal factors (e.g., human health and education) and natural resources (e.g., land, soil and crops) to be natural capital and seeks to develop effective policies that evenly distribute these resources to create sustainable ecological systems.

The field ultimately highlights the dependencies between human economies and natural ecosystems. Without humans, the economy would not exist, and money would not flow. Yet, humans are more directly dependent on the environment than money to survive. If we cannot breathe clean air, or access fresh water, we will die, and the economy will die with us. As Earth’s climate is changing, and humans are consuming significantly more global resources and producing more waste now than in the past (the World Bank predicts global waste will grow to 3.4 billion tonnes by 2050), an alternative to current patterns of economic growth and environmental degradation is urgently needed.

According to Friend, understanding the link between economics of human and natural systems can help us manage our natural resources appropriately. “If we have a sense of health of an ecosystem, we have a sense of health of society, and we have a sense of health of the economy,” she said, adding that we must think about the ways in which the decisions made in one sphere of influence positively or negatively impact the health and well-being of the others and recognize that decisions about how we manage resources have far-reaching consequences.

Fortunately, if we take a page out of the book of microorganisms, which have cornered the market on resourcefulness and adaptability, the bioeconomy can provide an alternative to exhausting available resources until the gears of society—and thus the economy—come to a grinding halt.

How Can Microbes Grease the Gears of Innovation, Ingenuity and Sustainability?

Microbes Are the Ultimate Biochemists

Microbes are the most abundant organisms on Earth. They also have existed on our planet for billions of years and possess relatively simple and adaptable genomes, which means that over time and with exposure to unlikely energy sources and changing environmental factors, microorganisms have evolved the ability to perform numerous metabolic feats. If scientists can harness that power to engineer renewable microbial systems that break down harmful chemicals, make new molecules and, ultimately, manufacture innovation, the economic potential becomes limitless.

As Donohue pointed out, “Microbes have been doing chemistry longer than people. And they have the ability to make a lot of molecules that chemists already make. If we can put genes and pathways together, I can see a day where microbes are making molecules that cannot be made easily or cost effectively by existing synthetic chemistry routes today.”

Genomics Opens the Door for Innovation

When it comes to the practical application of such techniques, Donohue credits the genomic revolution for facilitating major strides in research and development. He noted there is a lot of excitement around the idea that genomics opens new doors for using biology to make products. “Think of a gene as a Lego block,” he said. “We now have the ability to take the genomic blueprints from microorganisms, mine those and put ‘Lego blocks’ from 1 organism into another one to make products or mix and match ‘Lego blocks’—a yellow one from 1 organism, a blue one from another—to allow microbes to make things that they don't normally make.”

Sustainability Means Making the Most of a Biological System

The Department of Energy Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC), which is lead by Donohue, is mixing and matching genetic material from microbes to create economically viable and environmentally sustainable biofuels and bioproducts. One microbe that the team is particularly interested in is Novosphingobium aromaticivorans (Novo), a bacterium that was isolated in the early 1970s by the U.S. Department of Energy from a Superfund site (a location polluted by hazardous waste) in the Savannah River Basin. What made Novo particularly interesting at the time of its discovery was its ability to metabolize polyaromatic hydrocarbon pollutants that were all over the watershed area.

Today, Donohue and his team have brought Novo into the lab and found that its appetite for aromatics makes it useful for breaking down other difficult-to-metabolize compounds, including lignin, an aromatic heteropolymer that provides support and structure to plant cell walls, and converting them to biochemical precursors that can be used to create products with high economic value. “We can now take that [lignin] polymer apart and feed it to Novo, and Novo will secrete dicarboxylic acids that are precursors for nylon and biobased plastics that have a market value of trillions of dollars worldwide,” Donohue explained.

Petri dishes showing growth of beta-carotine and astaxanthin.
Genetic engineering allows GLBRC scientists to produce lucrative products, including beta-carotine and astaxanthin from wild type nosoxanthin.
Source: Timothy Donohue, Ph.D.

The innovation doesn’t stop there. Novo is yellow in color, tipping off scientists to the fact that the bacterium possesses the biosynthetic pathway to make carotenoids. With some genetic engineering, researchers turn this natural ability into a sustainable system that creates lucrative organic compounds. With a single gene change, GLBRC scientists have been able to get Novo to produce beta-carotene, a vibrant red-orange pigment that is used as an antioxidant and to color many food products, including margarine. By bringing in a gene from another organism, scientists have also been able to engineer Novo to produce astaxanthin, a pink-colored compound that Donohue explained is “another multi-billion-dollar-a-year product for the aquaculture industry.” Salmon farmers feed astaxanthin to farm-raised fish to help produce the desirable pink color in their flesh. In the aquaculture industry, astaxanthin is currently made from food grade sugars, but GLBRC has found an incredibly effective way to make this highly valued product from renewable resources.

“Now we can actually take Novo and get it to make—in the cell—carotenoids, astaxanthin or beta-carotene, and secrete a nylon precursor in the intermediate. So now industry, in 1 pot, can make 2 products and make money on each one, so that we are generating as much value from 1 fermentation run as possible.”

Can You Put a Price on a Biological Resource or System?

Once such knowledge is available, and a viable process like the Novo fermentation described above has been created, the basic science needs to move from academia to industry in a manner that is cost-effective. That means the idea must be scalable, and industries must be willing and able to invest the required resources to execute and roll out a usable bioproduct.

But recognition of the dependencies between society, the economy and the environment makes assessing the cost and value of biological resources and products more complicated than a bottom-line calculation. If something is extremely beneficial to the environment, but is of high economic cost with little to no monetary gain, is it worth the investment? What if the use of a biological resource would be extremely lucrative, but may ultimately have a negative impact on some facet of society? 

An Institutional Compass. An Institutional Compass.
Source: Michèle Indira Friend.
Friend is frequently called in to consult on these types of questions. She explained that many of the scientists she works with are looking for expert guidance to evaluate the moral implications of their work. “They want to have a philosopher of the environment come and help them with that more global philosophical, sociological evaluation,” she said.

When asked how she makes these assessments, Friend highlighted the fact that evaluating whether a particular action or product is "worth the investment" is really more of a philosophical question and pointed to a model that she created called the “Institutional Compass.”

The Institutional Compass is a tool that helps institutions recognize and make decisions based on desired qualities within their system or environment. This decision aid is both qualitative and objective and helps institutions comprehensively evaluate whether a particular action or investment will move their system in the direction of harmony (everything is going well, status quo), discipline (things are hard, there are constraints and obstacles) or excitement (things are in flux, people are investing and things are on the move). The compass takes into consideration social, political, cultural, environmental and economic factors—everything that might be important to and/or impact the institution at a given time—and uses data points and mathematical justifications to determine the outcome of each assessment.

Using Renewable Resources to Power a Circular Economy

An illustration showing the many facets of a circular bioeconomy.
All resources and products in a circular economy are renewable and sustainable, allowing them to be reused and recycled into the system. View larger image.
Source: Wisconsin Energy Institute/Chelsea Mamott.

Ultimately, both Friend and Donohue emphasize the importance of managing natural resources and creating bioproducts that are environmentally sustainable. “The bioeconomy is a very large enterprise. A future circular economy is potentially a big piece that fits into the bioeconomy, [in which] things are going to be in a circle—everything's going to be renewable,” explained Donohue. “So, we want to use renewable resources as the raw materials or feedstocks that power a potentially multi-trillion dollar per year circular bioeconomy.” With microbes, nature’s ultimate biochemists, at the helm, the possibilities are not only inspiring, but may also be life-changing—preserving the future of the society and our planet.

Are you interested in hearing more about how experts are using genetic and synthetic engineering to improve industrial processes, develop new products and elucidate exciting bioeconomic applications for microbes? Browse our Bioeconomy Curated Itinerary and join us at ASM Microbe 2024 in Atlanta in June.

Register Now

Author: Ashley Hagen, M.S.

Ashley Hagen
Ashley Hagen, M.S., is the Scientific and Digital Editor and host of ASM's Meet the Microbiologist. She earned her Master's Degree in Microbiology from the University of Georgia in Athens, Ga.

This content is for ASM members only.

Log In Become a Member