Denis Freitas @ Envisioning
Biotechnology is a branch of biology that develops applications by replicating bio-molecular and cellular processes from living organisms, and from the 1970's onwards started to synthesize artificial genetic systems. This led scientists to contest a notion that was regarded as a given until then, namely the immaculate notion of life, something that had lost its absolute status, being actually constructed and validated within a value system.
It entails controversial design-led experiments with advanced toolsets, such as those that allow the cell's genome to be cut and edited at precise locations, making way to potential pathogenic consequences. On the other hand, some techniques, such as microarray analysis, detect whether a person has or has not a chromosome abnormality. Biotechnology refers to what Socrates defined as pharmakon, a drug that may cure, but if misused, poison the ailing.
For evident reasons, the biotech scientific community have turned its eyes and attentions mainly to two sectors, food security and public health. Globalized food systems, or food-related activities through which an agricultural product routes from 'field to fork', together with pandemic surge, are recipe for disaster. Within this scenario, biotechnology performs an expressive role, manipulating root endophytes to act as a natural plant defense, bioengeering synthetic seeds, and designing safer medicines to treat viral diseases.
All Against Pandemics
We need to rethink the extreme constriction imposed by patents, since we are dealing with the very pillars that keep our societies on their feet. This demands a bold and ambitious call to action for sharing data and applications among researchers, something that is already underway in KBase, an open-source data-science research platform, funded by the US Department of Energy and designed for biotechnicians. Through an app catalog, datasets and narratives (interactive, dynamic, and persistent documents generated by users), researchers perform large-scale metagenomics, a method to reconstruct thousands of genomes outside the traditional lab environment. By analogy, it can be likened to big-data mining techniques, but more oriented towards a predictive biology, or the creation of repositories of draft genomes extracted from samples around the world in order to antecipate host-virus connections, contributing to efficiency of Automated Diagnosis Systems.
Science warns other pandemics are looming on the horizon. The measures to tackle new threats shall follow the precautionary principle and, as we saw in the case of the KBase platform, comprehend the formation of a cooperative intelligence.
Food for Thought
Due to media exposure, we are led to believe that the relationship between technology and food is a recent achievement, without realizing that dough fermentation, one of the oldest food biotechnologies, paved the way for the science of genetically modified organisms (GMO). So let us focus on other prospects. Take somatic embryogenesis for instance, a method similar to the composition of artificial seeds, a kind of 'vegan eugenics', whose main application is the genetic improvement of native species located at places where pollination is deficient. Passing from plant to animal kingdom, guilty carnivores can now eat 'semi-living steaks', a solution framed in the broad area of research involving Cultured Protein. Deploying tissue engineering techniques, scientists have been successful in growing 'victimless meat', taking cells from a live animal and proliferating them in-vitro.
The same methods derived from cellular food technology can breed synthetic versions of other stocks and objects, such as clothing and, why not, housing.
What Lies Ahead
(Caveat: not to be confounded with the holiday home rental company founded by pop-philosopher Alain de Botton). Broadly, living architecture is the use of metabolic materials in built environments, applying techniques in biotechnology and synthetic biology to design architectural constructs with qualities that come close to life. It is conceived as a next-generation practice that is set to revolutionize the employment of industrialized materials in construction industry, developing multi-purpose and 'self-healing' alternatives, as the Bryopsis plumosa, a green algae that can regenerate itself after mechanical destruction.
In a not too distant future, it will be possible, thanks to the synthetic biology, to employ 'protocell architecture' in reconstruction projects. Protocells are colloid particles that can be 'programmed' to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turn it into carbonate, a very sturdy material. The chemical engineering process can be used to repair various constructions, as the most damaged and stressed buildings of the cities.
Times are changing. In the film The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967), a middle-aged man utters assertively the word 'plastics' to Benjamin Braddock, played by Dustin Hoffman, suggesting that the future of the trade was in the mentioned industry. Had it been shot these days, certainly that word would be 'biofabrics', which have been hyped not only as the future of sustainable textile, but as a serious contender to replace plastic itself. Through the so-called green chemistry, processes that prevent the formation of toxic waste, natural substances such as proteins, algae, enzymes and bacteria might be used to grow materials that can withdraw plastic from circulation, the villain that jeopardizes any circular economy strategy.
A method of transforming, multiplying, and regenerating stem cell tissue through bioprocessing tools that extract body cells and culture them in a laboratory setting. The process of manufacturing stem cells has two distinct stages. The first one is proliferation, which involves producing several cells to form larger tissues. The second, called differentiation, is focused on turning stem cells into functioning cells. New substances such as hydrogel simplify these processes and enable scientists to achieve specific results, such as developing heart cells or motor neurons, for instance. They could support the restoration of damaged tissues and organs or be used in cell-based cellular therapies to fight against cancer and hematological disorders. These solutions could also help protect organisms from autoimmune and other inflammatory diseases and genetic disorders.
Clustered Regularly-Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) is a technique to achieve precise, literal cut-and-paste addition/subtraction of genomes. It relies on two major components: an enzyme that can cut DNA, such as Cas9 or Cpf1, and the use of a guide RNA, capable of recognizing the sequence of the DNA string that can be edited. This technology makes it possible to edit genomes by either modifying, deleting, or inserting new sequences to rewrite DNA and is a more agile and accurate method than previous or competing models of genetic editing. The pivotal point involves altering original base pair arrangements within an organism's genome without the need to introduce foreign genetic material from another organism.
A method that recovers cellulose fibers from wastewater, thus turning cellulose into a circular raw material. In the process, wastewater enters a treatment plant and passes through a coarse screen to remove oversized particles. Then, the sewage water gets pumped through a grit chamber to remove the easily sinkable solids. After, this water passes by a washer that separates cellulose fibers from bigger particles. The remaining wastewater is finally directed to a filter responsible for improving the water quality and discharging non-usable residues. The cellulose fibers recovered from the filter are dewatered, so dry solid materials become ready to be cleaned and polished. The final result is a raw product used in biocomposites and construction, such as an insulation material, asphalt, pulp, or paper.
A chemical identity test that separates strands of DNA and reveals the unique parts of the genome. This is done in a laboratory by collecting the desired sample and isolating the DNA, which is processed and multiplied using one or a combination of different techniques such as PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction). Using gel electrophoresis, it is possible to separate DNA fragments according to size and Southern blotting helps to detect specific DNA molecules, which reveals its unique DNA fingerprint. This technology is vastly used in criminal investigations to match DNA samples. By fingerprinting the DNA in food, for instance, one could accurately determine the strain, ancestry, and even origin of plant materials.
A method that converts a short DNA section into a unique barcode, allowing scientists and researchers to catalog and differentiate species of animals, plants, viruses, or tissues. This process happens by first isolating DNA from the sample, then amplifying the target DNA barcode region using PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction). After that, the PCR products are sequenced and compared against a reference database to find matching species. Depending on which analyte is being targeted, different sections must be observed and recorded. This procedure can be done in a lab, but emerging portable formats allow scientists to work in loco for faster and more accurate results. It is currently being employed to catalog wildlife and to improve food transparency by certifying if the product being bought is, in fact, the one advertised.
Carbon upcycling is a circular method using CO2 emissions captured from industrial activities to produce a cement-like and potentially carbon-neutral building material, transforming waste into raw material. This process takes captured CO2 and injects it into concrete during the mixing process. When combined with limestone minerals, CO2 creates a cementing agent. Once the concrete hardens, carbon is sequestered forever, since it chemically reacts with the concrete and becomes a mineral. This process could create a stronger and more lightweight form of concrete while ensuring a closed-loop production cycle in terms of greenhouse gases.
A recycling method, in which non-recycled mixed plastics from municipal solid waste are chemically transformed into synthetic crude oil that can be re-refined into polymers, waxes, heating oil, gasoline, or diesel fuel. This type of chemical recycling uses heat and different chemical combinations to reduce plastics to their original monomer form so that they can eventually be processed (re-polymerized). Pyrolysis involves two major processes: thermal or catalytic pyrolysis. Thermal pyrolysis is simply heating Polyethylene at high pressure, which breaks down the polymer backbone forming smaller organic molecules. Catalytic pyrolysis uses a catalyst to reduce the temperature and reaction time, improving its economic viability. The downside of pyrolysis is that no current technique can process all types of plastic simultaneously, such as black plastic. Also, recent discoveries show that it releases toxic substances into the environment, which current research is attempting to solve.
This energy transfer mechanism can be applied to roads and highways and is able to wirelessly charge batteries of onboard vehicles by creating an alternating electromagnetic field with an in-vehicle induction coil. By installing primary coil modules within the road surface, a magnetic field is created, which generates an electric current in a secondary coil placed under the vehicle, powering the vehicle's batteries. Some initiatives are studying magnetizable concrete materials to achieve inductive transport charging. This solution functions with parked vehicles using fixed pods or moving vehicles in a ‘dynamic charging’ mechanism through electrified roads. Additionally, wireless charging could become bidirectional: not only from the road to the vehicle but vice versa, by harnessing the energy generated from braking.
A textile dyeing method that involves pre-treating of natural textile fibers and using different carriers for the dye, reducing the amount of water, energy, dye, and toxic chemicals in the dying process. First, the process requires pre-treating natural fibers using cationic chemistry principles, which can alter their molecular structure to attract the dye naturally and more easily. Then, using disperse reactive dye and special machinery, supercritical carbon dioxide is used as a carrier instead of water, creating a closed-loop coloration system. The main hurdles in this method lie in the high cost of the CO2 dye machinery and the synthesis of special dyes.
Enhancing localized albedo (surface reflectivity) is a geoengineering method used in regional climate change adaptation in urban and agricultural settings. By increasing the surface reflectivity of crops, solar radiation absorption is reduced, which in turn partially neutralizes the local warming effects of increased atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations while also conserving water resources. While this could reduce global warming effects or modify the regional climate, little is known today about the effects of increased reflectivity on the ecosystem. The albedo enhancement can be achieved with different strategies, ranging from the simple selection of specific strains of crops to manipulating crops with traditional breeding techniques or genetically modifying certain species. Approaches to enhance the albedo effect include adjusting leaves' waxiness, leaf canopy structure, or genetically changing plants’ hairs, cuticles, or glaucousness.
By pulling moisture from the air, this water harvesting method can convert humidity into drinkable water. It functions either by extracting water droplets from coated filaments or using water-attracting metal-organic devices to extract water from the atmosphere. Vapor can be harvested by sandwiching a layer of water-attracting metal-organic elements between a black painted surface. This method is efficient because it captures more water and requires lower regeneration temperatures for its release compared to other sorbents. Generally, a system of this kind can produce three liters of water per day for every kilogram of metal-organic material. The approach promises to enable access to clean drinking water in low-humidity areas or zones lacking access to water resources. In agriculture, for instance, crops in arid regions would be irrigated with water coming from the atmosphere.
An environmentally sustainable desalination method that uses nanophotonic solar membranes to distill and desalinate water. The desalination process occurs when solar panels convert a portion of captured sunlight into electricity. The remaining energy harnessed by the solar panels is used as thermal power to boil saltwater, which runs across a porous membrane embedded with nanophotonic carbon. The membrane heats up, drawing water vapor, which is later collected in a pooled form of purified water. Recent studies have shown that adding inexpensive plastic lenses to create hot spots on the panels greatly improves efficiency. This method can be done off-grid and it is energy cost-efficient while also being able to avoid fossil fuel dependency in households and communities.
A photosynthetic system in which a synthetic enzyme is inserted into a living cell, enabling plants or bacteria to generate hydrogen gas from solar energy. This process happens through the application of an artificial enzyme that operates as a biomimetic catalyst for water oxidation in artificial photosynthesis. During water oxidation, oxygen evolution occurs, and electrons and protons are also produced, which could be used in fuel synthesis and the creation of other useful compounds.
A microscopic natural organism, classified as a macromolecular virus that seeks out and destroys specific strains of bacteria, also known as phage or bacterial virus. Bacteriophages are the natural enemies of bacteria and can be used as an antibiotic replacement. Also, they can have simple or elaborated structures and are made of DNA or RNA genome encapsulated by proteins, encoding from four to hundreds of genes. After injecting their genome into bacteria cytoplasm, they replicate, devouring the virus. Unlike harmful viruses, bacteriophage therapy specifically recognizes and attacks only bacteria and does not affect or harm humans or other living beings.
A process that harnesses the ability of natural microorganisms to remove pollutants from a contaminated environment effectively. This technique exploits properties from different naturally occurring bacteria and fungi that can process toxic chemicals and microplastics found in water and land. This happens due to these organisms' xenobiotic metabolism, a natural mechanism that enables toxic compounds to be converted into nontoxic byproducts.
A hybrid method to remediate pollutants present in the environment, able to biosynthesize nanoparticles by capturing metal ions through plants, bacteria, yeast, and fungi, and turning them into elementary non-toxic compounds through enzymes generated by cells. This bioremediation method reduces the toxicity in microorganisms while improving the microbial activity of specific toxic materials.
Nanomaterials applied to a matrix of molecules on a particular surface, becoming a robust outer layer of protection for surfaces to create these materials. This nano-sealing, ultra-thin coating method self-assembles on the surface of objects and organic products such as fruits and vegetables to protect them from dirt, ripeness, UV-light, and bacteria. Nanocoatings are extraordinarily slippery and water-resistant, and as hydrophobic or hydrophilic materials, they can protect nearly every type of surface from the effects produced by humidity and corrosion.
A method used in the separation and purification of lithium material, which in turn creates new batteries from recycled ones. By combining reagents and unit operations, this method enables the high extraction of cathode metals from lithium-ion batteries at battery-grade purity. While generating a cathode precursor, the combination of stages reveals a high recovery and purity potential. This process comprises different stages, such as pre-treatment, purification, and recovery, achieved mainly by chemical reactions. This method has a hundred percent recovery rate of valuable metals, including cobalt, nickel, manganese, aluminum, and lithium.
This method works for desalinating and cleaning contaminated water while requiring low energy levels. It involves the passive movement of water through a semi-permeable membrane into a solution of a higher concentration, where water is then extracted from the higher concentration product. Forward osmosis (FO) technology relies on the natural osmotic process, driven by a concentration gradient instead of significant hydraulic pressures. In this process, water is extracted from a lower concentrated feed solution and drawn to a highly concentrated draw solution. In biological systems, FO is a process by which cells maintain their integrity and transport important molecules.
A kinetic energy harvesting method that uses electromagnetic induction and inverse magnetostrictive effects to transform motion into energy. By applying a bias magnetic field using permanent magnets, a material's magnetization state is induced. Then, a strain is applied to this material, generating a change in magnetic flux, which is converted into electric power using a coil.
An energy harvesting method that converts kinetic energy in the form of vibrations or shocks into electrical energy. The piezoelectric effect makes reference to dielectric polarization, which generates power when mechanical stress or strain is applied to a dielectric. When vibration is applied to piezoelectric energy harvesters, electric energy is collected. This method can convert normally wasted vibration energy in the environment to usable electrical energy, for instance, by harvesting energy from people's footsteps impact on sidewalks.
A kinetic energy harvesting method that obtains electric power from vibration by using MEMS (microelectromechanical systems) and triboelectric energy harvesting mechanisms. Mechanical motions are converted into electrical inputs by using triboelectrification inductions, generating power as a charged electrode of a capacitor is vibrated to change the electrostatic capacitance. Latest developments show the use of MEMS autonomous plasma switch to control TENGs (Triboelectric Nanogenerators), which are tiny energy harvesting devices.
A treatment method that diffuses air into contaminated water to reproduce the optimal conditions for bacteria to proliferate, which can consume impurities present in greywater systems. The Diffused Aeration Process happens with the help of pumps that continuously feed the greywater tank with oxygen, creating the perfect environment for water-purifying bacteria to act. This biological treatment helps minimize the pollution caused by the discharge of untreated greywater and also reduces over-reliance on freshwater as it reuses wastewater.
Also known as micro-propagation, this in-vitro biotechnology method entails the cultivation and multiplication of plant cells detached from the parent organism. This process is often facilitated by a specially formulated liquid, semi-solid, or solid nutrient media, such as broth or agar. The cells are carefully added to a culture medium containing essential nutrients and energy sources needed for their growth. Under the right conditions, it is possible to generate an entire plant from a single cell.
A filtration method designed to treat aggressive feed waters by handling and effectively preventing membrane scaling caused by biological matter such as oil, grease, and silica— a common issue in Reverse Osmosis (RO). In RO, when certain salts' natural saturation, such as silica, exceeds a certain level, precipitation occurs, causing scaling of the semi-permeable membranes, which are costly to replace. In High-Efficiency Reverse Osmosis, the silica solubility is exponentially boosted by increasing water's pH up to 10 or more, allowing recoveries above 90%. This process offers the operators reduced costs through less water consumption, less use of antiscalants, and less required cleaning.
A water and wastewater filtration method used for water softening along with the removal and recovery of phosphates, fluoride, or heavy metals. Selective Compound Removal combines four conventional treatment processes into one: coagulation, flocculation, separation, and dewatering. The process starts in the pellet reactor, partially filled with seed material such as sand, small crushed pellets, or minerals. The water is injected upwards in a cylindrical vertical container, maintaining the pellet bed in a fluidized state. A reagent is then added to adjust the pH in order to crystallize the target compounds on the pellet bed. By adjusting for perfect pH, saturation, and temperature conditions, it is possible to minimize impurities' co-crystallization and maximize the high-purity compound crystals to be obtained. As the pellets grow, they move towards the bottom of the reactor and are discharged at regular intervals. After atmospheric drying, virtually water-free pellets are obtained. The effluent water overflows through the top of the reactor.
The process of eutrophication occurs when high levels of fertilizers, detergents, and sewage are discharged into the aquatic system irresponsibly, causing harmful nutrient and mineral saturation and lowering oxygen levels. To treat eutrophicating water bodies without using chemicals, eutrophic bioremediation can be employed by harnessing living organisms' remediating properties to control and recover plants and microbes' natural abilities to promote nutrient recycling in a body of water. Different eutrophic bioremediation strategies can be employed depending on the water bodies' health and ecosystem. Larger plants such as Cattail and Rotala Rotundifolia, for instance, capture and remove nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen and then split contaminants and toxins from the sediment and water, thus incorporating them into their plant material or biomass. Also, feeding Japanese abalone with algae is an efficient means to filter ammonia. Furthermore, as a byproduct of this process, there is a potential recovery of phosphorus when the aboveground plant biomass is harvested and removed. This compost is also a valuable source of nutrients, carbon, and organic matter that can be applied directly back into agricultural fields, recycling nutrients, thus enhancing soil fertility and moisture retention, offering a closed-loop solution.