Biotechnology: is it all about GM products?

Nutrition & Food Science

ISSN: 0034-6659

Article publication date: 1 December 1999



Swannell, R.P.J. (1999), "Biotechnology: is it all about GM products?", Nutrition & Food Science, Vol. 99 No. 6.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 1999, MCB UP Limited

Biotechnology: is it all about GM products?

Biotechnology: is it all about GM products?

Recent publicity about biotechnology suggests that it primarily involves the genetic manipulation of nature. This is certainly not the case. Whatever the pros and cons of growing food or manufacturing medicines with genetically-engineered organisms prove to be, this is only a part of biotechnology. There is a large range of biotechnological products which can and are being used in the UK to improve company performance and meet new challenging environmental standards. It is these products that are the subject of this article.

Biotechnology is the judicious exploitation of biology for industrial and other purposes. As such it is nothing new to the human race, who have developed and exploited organisms for a multitude of reasons, such as to produce food and for commercial gain. The face of the planet has been altered by the influence of humanity. Plants have been favoured because they produce palatable foods, and their evolution has been directed over the centuries through selection by mankind to produce more abundant, faster-growing crops. Certain animals have also been exploited for food, for their hunting and herding capability, for their ability to scare off intruders and even for their ability to provide companionship. However, the traditional uses of biotechnology have been predominantly in agriculture, whereas recent developments have shown an increasing potential for the profitable use of this technology in industry. Biotechnology is revolutionising the way raw materials are tested, goods are manufactured and industrial waste streams are treated, in much the same way as chemistry and chemical engineering fundamentally changed industrial practice in the first half of this century.

There are numerous specific applications for biotechnology in modern industry. These include:

  • authenticity testing of raw materials;

  • use of enzymes in industrial production;

  • monitoring industrial processes;

  • industrial cleaning;

  • treatment of liquid effluents;

  • treatment of gaseous wastes and odours;

  • treatment of contaminated land and groundwater.

Biosensors using enzymes, monoclonal antibodies, or receptors as the detection system can unequivocally determine the quality of raw materials. This may be particularly important for high-value textiles (such as angora wool) or chemicals (e.g. pharmaceuticals), whose authenticity and purity is crucial to the successful manufacture of products. Recently the food and drinks industry has had to recall large numbers of products because the raw materials used in their manufacture were contaminated. Biosensors could be used to screen for such contamination. Moreover, such sensors can also be used to monitor the performance of an industrial process, rapidly assessing the purity of a product.

Enzymes catalyse the interaction of compounds to make new molecules. This capability in nature is used to break down food and to manufacture the large number of molecules that are required for organisms to survive, grow and reproduce, as such enzymes have been tuned by evolution to produce molecules extremely accurately and at low temperatures (by industrial standards). The pharmaceutical industry is already producing drugs which have a specific chirality (molecules which have a specific configuration in space) using enzymes. This is particularly important as two molecules can have exactly the same chemical composition (i.e. they are isomers) but different configurations in space. One of the isomers may be highly toxic to humans and the other a highly effective therapeutic agent. To take another example: aspartame is a sweet-tasting molecule, but its chiral isomer is bitter! Therefore it is crucial to be able to make molecules of a particular chirality. Enzymes do this naturally, as many biological molecules have a specific chirality and are made and manipulated by enzymes, and they can do it in reactors at low temperatures and pressures, thereby saving energy and money.

Enzymes cannot only be used to produce molecules of a specific configuration, but can also convert raw materials into intermediates and products in ways that cannot be achieved using chemistry. For example, enzymes tend to produce single molecules as products, whereas chemical technology may only be able to produce a complex mixture of compounds only one of which has any commercial value (e.g. in the chemical production of lindane, >20 percent of the product of the chemical manufacture can be sold, the rest is waste). Thus, using low temperature and pressure processes, enzymes can maximise the conversion of raw materials into products, minimising waste and energy consumption.

Biotechnological products are increasingly being used as cleaning agents. Organisms naturally produce molecules which can "dissolve" (emulsify) fats in water, thereby degreasing surfaces. These "biosurfactants" are effective, often have a lower toxicity than chemical solvent treatments or chemical surfactants, and pose less threat to the workers using them and to the environment. One British contract cleaning firm has noticed a significant reduction in the numbers of minor injuries, and the sick leave taken by staff using biotech cleaning products in comparison to the levels noted when traditional chemical agents were used.

Where biotechnology has had a profound influence on industrial practice already is in waste treatment. Biological liquid effluent treatment plants are already used by a large number of companies, particularly in the food industry. They are well understood by their suppliers, and have a good track record. Increasingly companies, however, wish to extract value from waste. This can be done on liquid waste using anaerobic digestion (AD) which converts organic contaminants into methane and carbon dioxide. The methane can be cleaned and burned to produce heat and power. Production of power from AD attracts a premium electricity tariff as the Government is actively supporting the generation of "renewable" sources of energy, thus providing a double benefit to industry.

Solid waste can also be treated anaerobically to produce methane, or it can be composted to produce a stable, pasteurised product that may have agricultural and horticultural value. With the increase in landfill charges, industry is increasingly looking for ways of reducing the costs of waste disposal. "Sirocco", a portable composting plant that can be operated at most industrial sites, has recently been developed with support of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and The BOC Foundation for the Environment. This enables companies to reduce the volume of waste discharged to landfill and, depending on the quality of the waste, even allow the production of material which has some commercial resale value.

Increases in the incidence of asthma, the deterioration in urban air quality, and concern for global warming have focused national attention on air pollution. As a result, sources of air pollution are being more stringently controlled. Cars must be fitted with catalytic converters, "low emission" buses and electric trams are favoured, the UK Government is encouraging the use of public transport and legislation is restricting gaseous emissions from industry. Many industries must now control their air pollution, particularly their emission of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and odours. Controlling air pollution will be costly for many industrialists, although biotechnology can provide a cost-effective alternative. For high concentrations of VOC (>3.0gC/m3 air) incineration, thermal oxidation is reliable, cost-effective and has an excellent track record. The heat energy from the combustion can be reclaimed and used within the factory. Below this concentration, fuel has to be added which increases operating costs substantially making cheaper alternatives such as biotechnology more attractive. For a waste stream containing 2.0gC/m3 air or less, biotechnology is often 20-30 percent cheaper in capital costs and >50 percent cheaper in operating costs.

Established, reputable companies with a good track record of installing successful biotechnological devices to treat both VOCs and odour operate in the UK. They supply one or more of the following types of devices: a biofilter, a biotrickling filter or a bioscrubber. Each device is tailored to different type of emission. A biofilter is best suited for low concentrations of pollutants, whereas a bioscrubber can treat high levels rapidly. The biotrickling filter treats the middle range of contaminants effectively and is becoming increasingly popular. Biofilters are already used at a large number of sewage works in the UK to control odour. Biotechnology is also being used to treat air pollution in the food industry, shoe manufacture, the printing industry, electronics and a range of other businesses.

Finally biotechnology is increasingly being used to recycle contaminated land and treat groundwater. The UK Government has set challenging targets for the re-use of urban brownfield sites. At the moment, most sites are cleaned by removing the contaminated soil into landfill sites. Although effective in the short term, this approach it is not sustainable in the long term. Biotechnological solutions have been developed (often termed "bioremediation") to treat land and groundwater in situ. These approaches result in the cleaning of the soil and allow the sites to be re-used safely for new housing and businesses. When living on a small island, this sustainable approach is important if the cities are to be continuously renewed.

In summary, I hope in this article I have been able to demonstrate that biotechnology is not only about the production of GM products. It offers a wide range of solutions to many industrial problems, potentially increasing productivity and reducing the environmental consequences of industrial activity. Its successful exploitation may be as central to UK business in the next century, as chemical technology was in the early 1900s.

For free independent advice on how biotechnology could help your business please contact The DTI's BIO-WISE helpline on 0800 432100, or visit the Website (

Richard P.J. SwannellNational Environmental Technology Centre, AEA Technology Environment, Culham, Abingdon, Oxfordshire, UK

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