Let microbes clean up our stupidity
We can use microbes to clean up oil spills. Oil spills happen quite frequently; daily on a low scale, but also on massive scales in the ocean. Remember BP’s disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010?
The recently investigated marine bacterium Alcanivorax borkumensis was found to use hydrocarbons as substrate. It accumulates in areas of high concentration of oil compounds. The observed natural degradation of oil spills has been partly attributed to A. borkumensis. The bacterium’s enzymes, especially hydroxylases, are outstanding due to their high effectiveness and versatility. The crude enzyme extract was shown to efficiently remove benzene, toluene and xylene (Kadri et al., 2018). Genetic engineering could increase its efficiency of degrading petroleum products in soil and in water. Eventually, its application could immensely reduce environmental pollution and do humankind a great service.
Microbes for the production of therapeutics and vaccines
Modified microbes are used to produce therapeutic agents and are increasingly important for the development of new treatments. For instance, part of the artemisinin production that is used against the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum (killing approximately 1500 people a day) is done in transgenic yeast. The genetically engineered yeast (with genes from Artemisia annua) produces artemisinic acid that is then converted into artemisinin (semisynthetic process) (Kung et al., 2018). By optimising the metabolic processes in yeast and industrial fermentation, it is expected to reduce the current production costs significantly and, thereby, producing artemisinin in a quicker and much more sustainable way.
Synthetic biology is also used for vaccine research. Here, synthetic genes offer the advantage to work on a vaccine without the need to handle the pathogen.
Meat for Vegans
Meat without animals is also on the horizon! Today, livestock is a major producer of greenhouse gases, requires an enormous amount of land and antibiotics, and produces a lot of waste. But we can’t live without meat. So scientists set out to cultivate animal cells in bioreactors to produce poultry meat and beef (Reisinger and Clark, 2018; Sharma et al., 2015; Pandurangan and Kim, 2015). So vegans can look forward to finally eating animal-free meat.
The potential is sheer limitless
Spider silk that is stronger than steel, tougher than Kevlar and even lighter than carbon fibre can be produced by bacteria such as E. coli and yeast in large volumes. Even the attachment of other molecules to change certain properties of the silk has been done and resulted in its use for clothing, medical applications, and as cosmetic ingredient (Spiber Inc., AMSilk GmbH) (Edlund et al., 2018).
Synthetic biology is mainly used in microorganisms, but plants can also be augmented. Here, specifically oxygenic photosynthesis is an attractive area for enhancement, since only approximately 40% of the solar energy is used by plants. Optimisation by genetic engineering could lead to increased plant biomass and crop yields (Leister, 2018).
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