Madonna, Mass Consumption and Microbes

by Edward Green, CEO, NCIMB

At NCIMB, we believe microbes can provide sustainable solutions to the big issues of our time. With NCIMB gearing up to attend and present at the Bio-based and Biodegradable Industries Association event in May, ‘The power of microbes and the development of the circular bioeconomy’, I asked myself, are we on the brink of a fifth revolution, the ultimate BioRevolution, and how can NCIMB’s diverse microbial biorepository help towards reversing climate change and other societal challenges including disease outbreaks, food shortages, fuel poverty, loss of biodiversity, wildfires, and flooding?

Back in 1984, Madonna already knew we were ‘living in a material world’, and since then, things have only got worse. We’re living in a world of mass consumption, where fast fashion, cheap flights and Black Friday-discounted gadgets dominate – and with technology evolving at an overwhelmingly fast rate, we’re seeing everything becoming instantly available and delivered directly to our doors, at the touch of a button. What’s worse is that here in the UK, we are totally detached from the impact of our overconsuming, materialistic lifestyles. Most products are manufactured abroad, and the environmental impact of that manufacturing is out of sight and out of mind.

Our current consumption levels, and those in other affluent nations are unsustainable, and account for an increasingly disproportionate amount of the overall negative environmental impact caused by human activity. Effectively we are overspending our natural capital and are now living in nature’s overdraft. The Global Footprint Network annually calculates the day by which we have used up more ecological resources this year, than the Earth can regenerate by the end of the year. The occasion even has a name: Earth Overshoot Day. Last year global Earth Overshoot Day fell on July 28th. What’s even worse is that if everyone in the world lived like we do in the UK, Earth Overshoot Day would have been May 19th.

We know that when people buy less stuff, emissions, resource consumption and pollution drop. But with consumer habits changing too slowly to counteract climate change, what can we do? How can we become more sustainable and create a more circular bioeconomy?

For a step change to happen, and the climate disaster to be slowed, we need a revolution – much like that of the industrial revolution of the 18th century, revolutionising and modernising the world of today. But this time, we need a biobased revolution…one that works with nature, and not against it. One of the key opportunities to drive a more circular bioeconomy is right in front of us, all around us, and even inside us! Enter the BioRevolution, and the wonderful world of microbes!

One gram of soil contains as many microbes as there are people on Earth. Microbes know no borders, and are adept at adapting, competing for resources and thriving in the world’s most extreme environments -from desert sands to deep ocean floors. In order to thrive in so many different and often challenging environments, microorganisms behave like little cell factories, breaking down, and metabolising substances in the environment, to produce a variety of new compounds, many of which are useful to the microbes themselves, but also have immense potential to be exploited by mankind.  

At NCIMB, we house the UK’s largest and most diverse collection of industrial, food, marine, and environmental bacteria, and we have been making these microorganisms available to scientists around the world, for more than 70 years. We support some of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical manufacturers as well as household names in food, drink and energy production. In the last decade, we have seen increased demand from the biotechnology industry, and now, thanks to massive strides in engineering biology, machine learning and AI, it is possible to fully exploit the bacterial diversity within our collection.

Bacteria are nature’s superheroes, and the microbial resource in our care can provide routes to sustainable manufacture of many of the materials and substances that have become essential parts of our modern lives.

In 2015, the UN set out 17 Sustainable Development Goals, with interconnecting global objectives, providing a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all” by 2030. We are at the halfway point, and it got me thinking about the role microbes might play in achieving the outcome we so desperately need. I have picked out some key examples of where microbes can make a significant contribution.

Goal 2: Zero Hunger

Our current food system relies on unsustainable agricultural practices, and there is an urgent demand for new sustainable sources of nutrition. Microbial biomass can be a rich source of protein and is already consumed by many people in the form of meat substitutes. In addition, microbes are also used to produce a wide range of functional ingredients.  These products are gaining popularity due to their low carbon footprint, and their low reliance on land, water and seasonal variations, coupled with a favourable nutritional profile.

Many AgriTech companies now manufacture “biological products” that are derived from or include live microorganisms. These are used to protect crops from pests and disease, improve soil fertility and improve plant productivity. Using these solutions to replace currently used fertilizers and pesticides could play a significant part in creating a more sustainable agricultural sector, reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

Goal 3: Health and Wellbeing

Microorganisms are already used to produce a third of all drugs currently used to treat infections and diseases, including antibodies and vaccines, and recombinant DNA technology is used to deliver turbo-charged cell factories that play a major role in drug development. Bacteria can even be used to deliver drugs to target organs in the body. 

In addition, there has been a recent step-change in understanding of the important role that gut microbes, or the “gut microbiome”, play in in both gut and general health through the production of metabolites and other small molecules.  The use of living microbes in probiotics and biotherapeutic products are playing an increasingly important role in disease prevention and treatment.

Goal 6, 14 & 15: Clean Water and Sanitation, Life in Water and Life on Land

Microbes are critical contributors to our planet’s health. They are the ultimate recyclers in nature, breaking everything down and cycling the nutrients required to sustain life in every environmental niche on earth.  Microbes reduce pollution on land and in water, by breaking down pollutants and these naturally occurring processes can be harnessed by mankind.  Indeed, strains in the NCIMB collection, isolated from contaminated land have been found to break down the polluting substances and could have applications for bioremediation.

Goal 7: Affordable and Clean Energy

The current high global energy prices, combined with the climate crisis, means that the role of microbes in the production of affordable clean energy has never been more important. Not only are researchers exploring new ways to generate electricity directly from microbes, but microbial catalysts can also help convert waste streams, including agricultural residues and even waste gases, into biofuels.

Goal 10 & 11: Reduced Inequalities and Sustainable Cities and Communities

The BioRevolution, spurred on by microbes, can be a positive force for democracy too. If deployed properly, and at scale, the distributed availability of natural resources i.e., biomass has the power to democratise the production of biobased products for a variety of industrial sectors.  In addition, with the growth of the biotechnology sector, the need for a skilled workforce is critical and biobased manufacturing has a huge role to play in creating well-paid ‘green’ jobs especially in the UK.

Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production

Today, oil-derived feedstocks are essential manufacturing building blocks in the pharmaceutical and chemical sectors. Unlike energy generation, which can be decarbonised by using renewable energy sources such as wind power, the chemicals industry cannot be decarbonised. Instead, it needs to be de-fossilised. And the options here lie primarily in using biomass, atmospheric CO2, or indeed CO (flue gases from steel production), as feedstocks, helping our drive towards net zero.  Our knowledge of engineering microbes coupled with a drive towards more sustainable manufacturing, has now reached the point where replacing petrochemical derived production with bio-derived carbon neutral alternatives is a viable option. 

And speaking of petrochemicals, they are currently the main feedstock for plastics production – accounting for more than 500 million tonnes of carbon emissions annually. The problem is that almost everything in our world has plastic in it, and its accumulation in our environment is a massive problem for our planet. Microbes can be used to produce environmentally friendly plastics that are biodegradable, but they also have the ability to degrade conventional oil-derived plastics into harmless components.

Microbes are the key to a truly circular economy

I believe microbes can provide solutions to most of the UN’s sustainability goals. And, the exciting thing is, the examples listed above are just the start – we’re only standing at the threshold of this BioRevolution. However, there is still much work to be done and I urge the UK government to invest more in the discovery and development of our precious biological resources including maintenance and characterisation of microbial culture collections. With the right support, the development of microbial products could accelerate rapidly, taking advantage of cost reductions in DNA sequencing and DNA synthesis coupled with better gene editing tools. Another area that needs attention is the translation and scale-up of bio-derived industrial products. This tends to be capital intensive, and financial support is required to build flexible pilot facilities for emerging bio-derived products. 

One lesson from the Covid pandemic is that with urgency and proper financial backing, solutions to global challenges can be found and implemented extremely quickly. We must apply the same attitude to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels, tackle climate change and meet our environmental obligations. It is imperative, we work together to deliver effective microbial solutions for restoring the planets health.

NCIMB is well placed, via the provision of innovative microbiology services, to accelerate and de-risk product and process development.  We work with partners to unlock the potential of our diverse microbial culture collection, screening the strains within it to identify genes of interest and strains with the ability to produce enzymes, peptides, metabolites, and other useful small molecules. In addition, our culture collection contains robust microbial chassis required to realise the full potential of engineering biology in tackling the UN’s sustainable development goals.

Join us in delivering the microbial BioRevolution!

Dr Edward Green, CEO, NCIMB

At NCIMB, we believe microbes can provide solutions to the big issues of our time, and that our microbial biorepository – an amazing genetic resource for the 21st century – underpins many of those solutions.