The world we inhabit is highly dependent on fossil resources. From fuels to synthetic fibers and plastics, many chemicals and materials undergo a refining process in which fossil oil or natural gas function as raw materials. The use of fossil resources in manufacturing everyday products is perceived as a threat to national energy security and is often also blamed for climate change. Accordingly, attempts are being made to reduce our dependence on fossil resources, such as by using renewable biomass as an alternative raw material.

When considering biomass as a raw material, one consideration springs to mind: the food versus fuel debate. Should edible corn and sugar be used as raw material? Fortunately, since suitable non-food biomass (such as lignocellulosics and algal biomass) are inexpensive and in abundance, it is not – or at least it will not be – necessary to use food crop biomass in biorefineries. Ultimately, we will be able to establish a food-to-fuel balance.

Looking into the future, carbon dioxide will one day be used as a raw material to make chemicals and materials which are currently produced from petroleum. To make this a reality, we need to source high-performance micro-organisms. Micro-organisms that are isolated from nature are not conducive to efficient and cost-effective production, however. This is where metabolic engineering comes into play: in improving the metabolic performance of the cell.

Over the last couple of decades, metabolic engineering has advanced rapidly in designing and developing engineered micro-organisms to produce drugs, chemicals, fuel and materials more efficiently. Advances in systems biology and synthetic biology have changed the field of metabolic engineering. Based on the rapid analysis of the entire genome, followed by a systems-level analysis of cellular and metabolic characteristics, metabolic engineers are now equipped with vast amounts of data and simulation tools. These they can use to design optimally performing cells.

With synthetic biology, we can now design and create enzymes and pathways from which even non-natural chemicals can be derived. Such an integrated way of metabolic engineering, termed “systems metabolic engineering”, is allowing us to develop super-performing biocatalyst cells for successful biorefineries. For example, 1,4-butanediol – a non-natural, commodity chemical used to make plastics, spandex and polyesters, and polylactic acid – could be made via the systems metabolic engineering of E. coli. Essentially, bacteria can be rejigged into synthetic fibres.

Such development will bring about evolution in the chemical industry. It will help us move us towards a more sustainable world. Additionally, job opportunities will grow in the field of metabolic engineering, such as fermentation, downstream bioprocessing and integrated bioprocess synthesis.

For more information, read the World Economic Forum’s Future of Industrial Biorefineries report at http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_FutureIndustrialBiorefineries_Report_2010.pdf

Author: Sang Yup Lee is Distinguished Professor, Dean and Director at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), and is currently the Chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies.

Pictured:  A chemical engineer holds up a test-tube of biofuel at Oleoplan factory in Passo Fundo, 300 km (186 miles) southwest of Porto Alegre, May 21, 2010. With its biofuels business increasingly dominated by giant corporations, Brazil is seeking to extend the sector to include small farmers who can improve their incomes by planting the crops used to make fuel. REUTERS/Bruno Domingos