Synthetic super fungi promise to revolutionise biotechnological potential

Mushrooms are a superfood, but few are aware of the many other uses of fungi.

Fungi stand to have a major impact on our future, not just because of their ability to break down organic matter in nature and therefore accelerate the carbon cycle, but also more and more because of their role as producers of fuels, chemicals and bioplastics in the industrial sector.

In addition to edible fungi, there is a range of yeasts and moulds with a variety of properties. These microbes have a natural ability to metabolise wood, straw and different types of organic waste, as well as the sugars derived from these materials, into products that have uses for humans, such as antibiotics, alcohols, vitamins and laundry detergent enzymes. Fungi are – or could very easily become – a natural and important part of bioeconomy.

So why does Finland’s bioeconomy discussion boast about ‘selling ceps to the Italians’? And why do bioeconomy plans so rarely talk about biotechnology itself and the possibilities it opens up in this new kind of economy, which is all about finding alternatives for fossil resources and making use of biological plant material?

Most consumers know that traditional biotechnology products, such as wine and beer, are made using yeast. However, few are aware that insulin comes from genetically modified yeast and that jeans are ‘stone-washed’ using enzymes that moulds produce in large, sealed vats – in bioreactors that have a capacity of hundreds of thousands of litres. Any technologist with an interest in bioeconomy as well as decision-makers should have at least a basic understanding of the nature of modern biotechnology and its immense potential in terms of new products.

Industrial biotechnology concerns the use of living organisms in industrial production. The industry is developing at an extremely rapid rate, and it is founded on the latest scientific findings. Yeasts and moulds certainly do not need to bow down to anyone in the world of technology. Yeast research received the Nobel Prize in 2001, and the release of the baker’s yeast genome in 1996 marked the first time that the complete set of genetic material of an organism with a human-like cell structure (eukaryotic) was sequenced. The genomes of hundreds of different moulds have now also been sequenced, and researchers are currently combing through these to find the best candidates for genes that could, for example, produce enzymes for making biofuels from straw or wood waste.

The latest scientific achievements include the first fully synthetic chromosome of baker’s yeast, which scientists managed to produce in 2014. The rapid rate of development in this field of science is epitomised by the fact that scientists plan to replace the entire yeast genome, all 16 chromosomes, with human-designed synthetic DNA by 2018. This will give us the first ever synthetic eukaryotic organism: Saccharomyces cerevisiae 2.0.

Synthetic biology is set to revolutionise biotechnological potential in the near future

Synthetic biology gives us the tools to design and produce biological structures and living cells that do not exist in nature. Researchers can choose which properties they want to have in a production organism,  then design a new genetic code on that basis using a computer, and send the data to a company that can synthesise the genes, or DNA, in a test tube. Numerous strands of this kind of synthetic DNA can be incorporated quickly and accurately into the production microbe’s genetic material. Synthetic genes are activated and passed on to subsequent generations.

It takes just a couple of weeks to find the most suitable candidates from among thousands of different kinds of synthetic cells. The cells can be examined with the help of mathematical models and digitised, and synthetic DNA and organisms can be produced by means of automation and robotics. These tools make the process of building new, increasingly efficient production organisms and those that produce new compounds considerably faster. Businesses and research teams that have access to synthetic biology tools are ahead of the game in terms of developing and patenting new innovations.

Many countries, including EU Member States, see industrial biotechnology as one of the most important future technologies, especially thanks to the boost from synthetic biology. Industrial biotechnology enables the development of sustainable solutions for a wide variety of industrial sectors, such as the energy , chemical, pharmaceutical and forest industry.

Microbes can be made to turn organic waste into the same products that are currently derived from oil, and many petrochemicals can be replaced by compounds produced naturally by microbes. Synthetic biology makes possible fast development  of microbes into super-efficient producers and those that are well suited for industrial processes. Biological properties can be transferred from one species to another in a controlled manner, and completely new kinds of functions can be designed and living cells programmed to manifest them.

Making way for visionary business ideas

Synthetic biology excites mathematicians, chemists and physicists, and inspires students and young entrepreneurs. Amazingly little use has been made of the versatile functionality and specificity of biology in industrial production so far.

The time has now come for a biotechnological revolution, and completely new kinds of business ideas, including some wild ones, are expected within just a few years.  The first and most important area where innovations are needed, however, is bioeconomy: producing chemicals, fuels and materials from renewable resources.

Fungi to diversify Finland’s industrial sector

Finland has been a pioneer in the industrial application of biotechnology and its most important production organisms – yeasts and moulds – as well as in developing modern biotechnological techniques. Finnish researchers are able to make yeast produce biofuel butanol, mould to secrete human antibodies, and yeast to produce lactic acid, which can be polymerised into bioplastics. These kinds of multifaceted research and development projects have been possible largely thanks to interest from foreign companies.

Biotechnology, and fungi developed by means of synthetic biology, could also open up new opportunities in the industrial production of highly sought-after added-value products in Finland, and diversify Finland’s industrial sector.

The Living Factories programme, which is funded by Tekes and coordinated by VTT, strives to lower the threshold of Finnish industry to adopt biotechnological production processes. The project has already shown that synthetic biology (e.g. the genome editing technique CRISPR) can significantly speed up the development of production organisms and lower development costs.

Biotechnology is one of the most rapidly developing technologies at the moment, and it is among the top priorities of most countries’ technology strategies. Modern biotechnology also combines the success factors that are important to Finland: cutting-edge- expertise and the use of renewable raw materials.

Merja Penttilä

Research Professor 

 

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