Today many consumer products are made from fossil resources using synthetic chemistry techniques. In the future we will need to reduce our dependence on petroleum products and move to renewable resources.
At the same time, the advent of synthetic biology techniques for rapidly tailoring biological systems for manufacturing purposes will allow us to transition away from synthetic chemistry and into more environmentally friendly production mechanisms using cells. We are tackling the question of how to undergo this transition smoothly by working with our industrial partners, GlaxoSmithKline, Lonza Biologics and Shell, on real-world applications in two consumer areas (therapeutics and chemicals manufacturing).
To developing these future biofactories we are inventing some new generalised technologies to underpin the new manufacturing processes. We are producing new biologically based sensors in order to be able to monitor the production processes as they occur to ensure the product quality (and to allow us to intervene if necessary). We are also researching new, more robust production cells that can tolerate the high levels of compounds they make and new microreactors and/or compartmentalisation strategies for using enzymes when whole cells are not required.
Because the transition will not happen overnight, we are developing intermediate production methods that combine biological and chemical catalysts. This requires solvents that are less toxic to proteins and cells and proteins that are engineered to be more robust in the presence of chemicals. In order to develop processes that are economical and efficient (minimal energy and water usage), we are creating computer models to compare alternatives. The most promising processes will be implemented in the factories of our industrial partners.