The transformation of the environment is an intrinsic characteristic of nature. Not only the physical history of the universe, through cosmic collisions, exchanges of inert energies end up metamorphosing the principles of the matter that conforms us; but also, a magical conversion – somewhat alchemical –, occurs thanks to the action of living beings. The thought that only humans change the environment drastically is a limiting prejudice to understand the hidden greatness in the biosphere. All organisms manufacture proteins from amino acids, extract salts from the soil, compartmentalize into phospholipids as a means of shielding themselves from outside hostility (not unlike the walls of a large factory that stores wealth). The greater the complexity of the organism, the greater the capacity to manufacture structures and tools: spiders with their webs are able to hunt without moving, mucus films that protect the skin of amphibians that allow them to emerge from the water and breathe, and even the calcareous shell of a snail that protects it in the summer.
However, it is true that humans have developed a more prominent intellect in parallel to bipedalism and useful limbs for grasping tools, so their ability to change the environment has been exponential throughout their development as a species. Right now, we are at a point of no return where the need to manufacture more and better materials is pressing to maintain human well-being. It is at this point that biomanufacturing appears to try to solve these problems derived from an unsustainable consumption model, mainly.
What it is?
Bio-Manufacturing can be defined as those biotechnological processes - that is, the transformations that life exerts on the environment - designed for the manufacture or fabrication of biomaterials. Biomaterials are products that are usually related to construction, although any biological product with pragmatic purposes could be considered as such. Drugs, foods, tissues, heterologous proteins; any type of chemical that is derived from the usual or modified metabolism of an organism or organisms.
Main advantages of biomanufacturing
Whenever these types of questions come up, I like to make analogies with other processes. For example: what are the advantages of using a syringe to vaccinate? We could say that it is a tool specially designed for this process since its needle penetrates the tegument and lets its contents pass through the plunger with precise overpressure. Something similar happens with biomanufacturing. Human ingenuity is amazing, but it will never surpass nature itself in strategies. You can use abrasive chemicals and acids to degrade cellulose and lignin in logs, but then it turns out that there are several ligninolytic fungi that using a simple enzyme called laccase to do it faster and more efficiently, and on top of that they can be modified to bioremediate pollutants through advanced oxidation processes, with the laccase-mediator system.
In summary, the advantages of biomanufacturing are the cheapening of industrial processes, the improvement of performance - due to the very accessibility of living systems and their tendency to proliferate -, the capacity to bioremediate polluting processes, the sustainability of these processes, and finally the potential to improve current materials. The main disadvantage is that the initial investment is high in some cases.
This concept is not new and has been on the table for a long time. With the discovery of the genetic code, many theorized that it could be digitized to store and use that information in a convenient way. Today, it is a reality. Due to the highly informative compactness of DNA, this molecule is being studied as a possible substitute for other computer storage systems. This machine, in particular, aims to be able to digitize biological information in order to send it to a "printing" device, which materializes it. We could say that it is the technological imitation of the nucleus-ribosome relationship present in all terrestrial cells, at least. Of course, this technology can be developed to make a "print on demand" service of genes on an industrial scale or for personal use. Are you lactose intolerant? You could design your own betagalactosidase to add to milk. It's just a silly idea, but one that will probably also be part of the collection of offerings that the future of this technology will provide.
Current Status & Start-ups
All these promises of synthetic DNA and its commercialization are booming. Although there is still much to know about the regulation of genomes, it is certain that using their elementary building blocks is possible and very useful with this technology. Moreover, biomanufacturing is not new, as we noted at the beginning, it is just a matter of devising a design that allows us to use it effectively (whether genetically engineered or not).
In the field of DNA synthesis, we have Ansa Biotechnologies, which is trying to stone the old method of chemical synthesis. Curie Co., on the other hand, is continuing its efforts to manufacture biopolymers that can replace petroleum derivatives in a totally clean and sustainable way using the metabolism of organisms. Culture Biosciences also focuses on the biomanufacturing of materials but this time through the wholesale of bioreactors designed for this purpose. Isolere Bio is another interesting start-up dedicated to the production of drugs in a novel way, avoiding chromatography to increase yield and save production costs.
The future looks promising for this field, as the history of biological progress itself shows. It is only a matter of time before a major revolution takes place and society accepts these changes in pursuit of sustainability.