Episode Summary

Timothy Donohue, Ph.D.—ASM Past President, University of Wisconsin Foundation Fetzer Professor of Bacteriologyand Director of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) calls genomics a game-changer when it comes the potential of microbes to create renewable resources and products that can sustain the environment, economy and supply chain around the world. He also shares some exciting new advances in the field and discusses ways his research team is using microorganisms as nanofactories to degrade lignocellulose and make a smorgasbord of products with high economic value.

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Ashley's Biggest Takeaways:

  • The bioeconomy can be broadly defined as the use of renewable resources, including microorganisms, to produce valuable goods, products and services.
  • Microbes have the potential to create products that cannot be made by existing synthetic chemistry routes.
  • Using raw, renewable resources to create a circular bioeconomy is beneficial to the environmental footprint, economic footprint and supply chain security around the globe.

Featured Quotes:

How the Bioeconomy Touches Our Everyday Lives

The bioeconomy is a relatively new term. But in fact, 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, right? If you're taking a pharmaceutical, that's a microbial fermentation product. And some of the newer advances: if you buy a bottle of soda or a bottle of water, and it has a little green leaf on it, that denotes that some of the plastic that's in that bottle was made from starch. So, it's made from a renewable resource.

We are surrounded by the bioeconomy. I think a lot of the excitement about it is that genomics opens up all new doors for us to consider in using biology to make products.

The example that I used of a soda or a water bottle, that bottle uses a biological resource—sugars from let's say starch or elsewhere—and it actually uses chemistry to make that bottle. That's a new use for biology. So that's part of the bioeconomy. The other examples I gave are old ones— pharmaceuticals, bread, if you like wine, or beer or soy sauce, those are all bioeconomy products. But in that case, there's a biological catalyst that's making the product from a biological material. And there are also hybrid technologies. If you ever go to the supermarket and buy a product that has a hydrogenated oil in it, those oils are typically made by fermentation, but they need to be reduced by hydrogen to make a fully saturated or hydrogenated oil. So that's an example, if you will, of a hybrid technology—just like a hybrid car.

Global Importance of the Bioeconomy

I think it's important for a variety reasons. We generate billions of tons of renewable materials by existing societal processes. Just think of agriculture, everything from the stalks of corn that aren't used for food, to crops that we can grow specifically to produce fuels and chemicals. Just think of the dairy industry. I already gave the example of whey for making cheese or making yogurt. Think of manure from the cows. Those could all be used as renewable sources of fuels and chemicals moving forward. So that has a huge environmental footprint. If we can use those materials as raw materials, instead of fossil fuels.

It also has a huge economic footprint because those refineries that make those products, are going to be close to where the products are generated. So, in a state like Wisconsin—I'm in Wisconsin today—we have a large dairy and agribusiness industry. So, it provides economic opportunity for rural communities and citizens of the state to make those products locally, instead of having to import them from elsewhere in the country or around the world.

A third important aspect of this is something I'll call supply chain resilience. So, we've all lived through COVID-19, and we saw what happened when the supply chain of eggs and various things that we depend on shut down. We've lived through other natural disasters like hurricanes, and seen what happens to gasoline or chemical prices when the Gulf of Mexico or the East Coast U.S. or Puerto Rico suffers from one of those natural disasters. We would be in a different place if we had backup systems that could make things all the time, but then increase capacity when the Gulf of Mexico or Puerto Rico or the East Coast refineries go down, so that consumers would not have to pay 2-3 times more per unit of materials that they need. So, it's, it's supply chain security as well.

Requirements for Creating a Circular Economy

There's a variety of steps. As somebody who lives at a university, I tend to think about the first step being the knowledge to create processes that make chemicals or fuels or materials that we currently derive from fossil fuels from renewable, raw materials. As someone who also lives in academics that might want to think about the healthcare industry, how do we make new antimicrobials by putting genes together [like Lego pieces] to make new chemistries that the pathogens that we want to ward off have never seen before? So, there's a basic science piece. And I'm very proud of all the patents and invention disclosures that you mentioned early on.

But then there's a piece of getting it from academics out to industry, and having it be cost competitive, and having industries willing and able to invest the resources to put steel in the ground and build these new refineries that are going to make these products for the people of the U.S., and for the people of the world.

We're at the point where we can make molecules—other than ethanol—that could be passed off to engineers in a hybrid technology to be upgraded into fuels that would replace the gasoline in your car, that would be able to be blended in with aviation fuels. So, the next time you flew from O'Hare Airport to Heathrow, or from Dallas to Paris, on a vacation, you could be flying on a plane that is powered by some amount of sustainable aviation fuel.

We’re close. We can make them in small amounts. It needs to be scaled, and then it needs to be cost effective. Because you, as a consumer, are probably not going to want to pay 10 times more for a plane ticket if your plane’s flying on sustainable aviation fuel than if it's flying on a barrel of fuel.

The Nearly Limitless Potential of Microorganisms

I'm bullish on microbes; 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 certain 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. So, there's a huge opportunity space here for microbes to create these products.

When we started on this trail 15-16 years ago, scientists who had worked on lignocellulose for decades and academics and [people] in the private sector said, ‘Don't even think about trying to make anything from lignin.’ What the refinery is going to do is burn it for heating electricity. Well, when you look at the structure of lignin, as a biologist, you see that Mother Nature has invested a lot to make really important chemical molecules there. And we saw an opportunity to do more than just burn it; we saw an opportunity to take that organic material and turn it into products.

Our economic analysis says that, if we can convert 25-30% of the carbon, the industry or the wastewater treatment plant can make more money out of that product than they would by selling heat and electricity to the grid.

It provides extra revenue for the lignocellulosic farmers, the forestry industry—if trees are going to be used—or for the dairy industry, because they get more value out of those coproducts. And instead of taking those products and releasing them into the wastewater stream or putting them on the land, you avoid a negative environmental impact. Because if they get into the water column, they're high and phosphate. That can lead to algal blooms. If there's too much nitrogen that gets into the soil when they're released, it can lead to the production of nitrous oxide and other greenhouse gases that have a longer residence time in the atmosphere than CO2. So, our goal is to keep all of this in a chain that provides both economic opportunity and prevents negative environmental impact.

I would put my career on the line by saying there is either no, or very few, places on this planet that are sterile, that are microbe free. And if it wasn't for microbes, we wouldn't be here, because they have shaped this planet, and they continue to shape this planet.

So, microbes are our friends. Microbes are cool. microbes can also be thought of in the future as little miniature nano factories to make products, as well as making sure that crops can grow. If anyone's ever tried to grow a house plant or any crop in sterile soil, you will quickly find out that they don't do very well. So, we depend on microbes every day. They’re just so small, we don't think about them all the time.

Creating Jobs and Powering the Future of the Field

I think the big growth area in the future is going to be microbial based chemicals. And I'm using the term chemicals very broadly, encompassing everything from some of the examples I gave, like bio-based, biodegradable polymers, to new antimicrobials and pharmaceuticals, to fuel molecules, again to be a large volume product.

The chemical industry is large and growing, especially if we want renewable plastics that are biodegradable and don't want to create another whole negative environmental impact down the road. If we want new materials that are based from biological substrates, whether it's aromatics or sugars, these are all large growth areas.

And if I was a young person, I would be very excited about that potential. And I want to make it clear that there is space in this area for students who might want to be microbiology majors, [and also] students who want to be chemistry majors and students who want to be computer science majors, that are helping us figure out what all of these Lego blocks and these genomes really encode, and putting all these things together.

I think there's a huge space for young people who want to get in the intellectual property around this—you know, patents and how you work with industry, or live in the industry, to figure out how to commercialize things that have been made by industry, or things that have been made by academics or in partnership. We have students that go into intellectual property all the time, we have students that are going and doing ASM or AAAS or private foundation fellowships to work with congressional staff or with federal agencies. People with science degrees that know policy and can work with congressional staff and policy makers at the state level, at the federal level, at the local level are going to be critical in this because the best technology will just sit on my hard drive if there's no policy instruments to get that out there.
Join us at ASM Microbe 2024 in Atlanta on Saturday, June 16, at 5:15 p.m. ET as Donohue joins the top minds in the field to discuss the power of the microbial sciences to change the world during the Microbe 2024 ASM President’s Forum. It’s not too late to register!

Links for This Episode:

Trillion Dollar Microbes Make the Bioeconomy Go Round With Tim Donohue