Report outlines roadmap for industrial biotechnology

By Erin Voegele | April 16, 2015

The National Research Council of the National Academies recently published a report outlining goals and recommendations to expand industrial biotechnology. The report, titled "Industrialization of Biology: A Roadmap to Accelerate the Advanced Manufacturing of Chemicals,” was prepared at the request of the U.S. Department of Energy and National Science Foundation.

The report notes that in the 19th century, insights into the chemical nature of matter, reaction mechanisms and the role of physical and catalytic processes transformed the industrial landscape. By the early 20th century, a new understanding of chemistry allowed a vast array of chemical products, including plastics, paints, detergents, and textiles, to be manufactured from crude oil. “Today, we are at a new inflection point. The tremendous progress in biology over the past half century—from Watson and Crick’s elucidation of the structure of DNA to today’s astonishing, rapid progress in the field of synthetic biology—has positioned us for the new round of innovation in chemical production,” said the authors in the report, explaining a 13-member committee on industrialization of biology was charged with understanding how to accelerate biological production of chemicals and create a roadmap for that future.

A wide variety of topics are covered in the more than 125-page report, including a discussion of biobased markets, recent advances in science and industry, and feedstocks. The report includes information on new sources of carbon, grain-derived sugars, lignocellulosic biomass, and C1 feedstocks. A variety of issues related to technology are addressed, including fermentation, scaling, enzyme-mediated reactions, cell-free processing, and additional bioprocessing operations. The authors also discuss the organisms that are designed to enable bioprocessing.

The report includes several recommendations aimed at accelerating and supporting the progress of industrial biotechnology. The committee recommends that relevant government agencies consider establishing an ongoing road-mapping mechanism to provide direction to technology development, translation and commercialization at scale. “This road-mapping effort would bring together participants from public and private research, and participants with all skill sets needed for the industrialization of biology. In addition to maintaining the roadmap, this effort could assist in sharing the knowledge, tools and data needed to accelerate progress,” said the committee in the report.

In order to transform the pace of industrial biotechnology, the committee also recommends the NSF, DOE, national Institutes of Health, National Institute of Standards and Technology, U.S. Department of Defense and other relevant agencies support the scientific research and foundational technologies required to advance and integrate the areas of feedstocks, organismal chassis and pathway development, fermentation, and processing. Specifically, the committee said these groups should support research focused on improving the availability of economic and environmentally sustainable feedstock, increasing the availability, reliability and sustainability of feedstocks, and improving the basic understanding of C1-based fermentation. According to the committee, research should also focus on improving the productivity of the fermentation process, expanding the palette of domesticated microbial and cell-free platforms for biomanufacturing, cultivating robust strains that remain genetically stable and retain performance stability over time, developing the ability to rapidly develop enzymes, and rapidly, routinely, and reproducibly measure pathways function and cellular physiology.

Regarding economics, the committee recommends the U.S. government perform a regular quantitative measure of the contribution of biobased production processes to the U.S. economy to develop a capacity for forecasting and assessing economic impact. The recommendations also address education and workforce, with the committee recommending that industrial biotechnology firms strengthen their partnerships with all levels of academia to communicate changing needs and practices in industry in order to inform and influence academic instruction. The committee also notes that federal agencies, academia, and industry should devise and support innovative approaches to expanding the exposure of student trainers to design-build-test-learn paradigms in high-throughput fashion and industrial scale.

In addition, the committee recommends that the U.S. EPA, Commerce Department, USDA, Food and Drug Administration, Occupational Safety and Health Administration and other relevant agencies work together to broadly assess, and regularly reassess, the adequacy of existing governance, including regulation, and to identify places where industry, academia, and the public can contribute to or participate in governance. Science funding agencies and science policy offices are also encouraged to ensure outreach efforts facilitate responsible innovation by enabling the extension of existing relevant regulatory practices, concordance across countries, and increased public engagement.

A full copy of the report can be downloaded from the National Academies website.