Using microbes for a more sustainable world

Synthetic biology is providing new ways to clean up existing pollution and improve the sustainable use of resources

In order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote healthier ecosystems, there is an urgent need to shift away from fossil fuels and toward sustainable energy sources. The development of new technologies will play an important role in that transition, including technologies based on microbes. 
Indeed, microbes are now being used to develop environmentally friendly materials, to produce sustainable fuels, as well as clean up existing pollution and promote food security.

For example, with the right modifications, microbes can produce molecular chains called ‘biopolymers’, which can be used in the production of bioplastics. This, in turn, will reduce reliance on petrochemical-based plastics and materials.

“Climate change is the defining issue of our time and we are at a defining moment”  
­— Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations

Meanwhile, as electricity grids begin to shift toward renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power, transportation —particularly in the airline and shipping industries — continues to rely heavily on liquid petrochemical fuels. To address this, experts in Advanced Biomanufacturing are engineering microorganisms to produce renewable biofuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel, which are easily transportable.

Modified microbes can also help treat wastewater, degrade plastics, and clean up heavy metal pollutants. They can even be used to capture greenhouse gases and transform them into chemicals or fuels. Moreover, they can be designed to act as ‘biosensors’ that rapidly identify the presence of toxins, hormones, pathogens and other contaminants in the environment

Furthermore, tiny microbes will have a big influence on the future of agriculture. Microbial biosensors are already being designed to detect crop diseases, while modified bacteria and algae have the potential to be used as agricultural probiotics that enhance soil quality, water efficiency and nutrient availability while reducing reliance on chemical fertilisers and pesticides.sustainability chart, using microbes for a more sustainable world, AIBN's Small Things Big Changes