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Strategic Plan: Strategic research priority 2 – industrial biotechnology and bioenergy

Energy, industrial materials and biopharmaceuticals, developed and produced using biological processes, reducing dependency on fossil fuels and helping drive the UK bioeconomy.

The challenge

Positioning the UK as a low carbon economy, and meeting international targets for reducing emissions, requires a transformation to more economically and environmentally sustainable ways of producing and using energy, transport fuels, chemicals and industrial feedstocks.

Case study: Industrial biotechnology

S Martin TMO Renewables
Researchers at The University of Nottingham have devised a battery of proprietary gene technologies which are now being employed to enhance the productivity of bacterial strains in the large-scale production of chemical commodities and transport fuels from renewable plant biomass.
Image: S Martin/TMO Renewables

Industrial biotechnology offers novel solutions through the use of biological processes derived from plants, bacteria, algae and fungi as sources of renewable energy, materials and chemicals from which business investments in the "bioeconomy" will create new opportunities and employment in the UK, leading to economic growth.

Research opportunities

Increasing the use of biorenewables in products, processes and industrial feedstocks is a complex economic, environmental, technical, social and policy challenge. There is an urgent need to expand the range, efficiency and cost effectiveness of biorenewables manufacture. Working with key partners such as the Technology Strategy Board and EPSRC, we will invest in research that takes a whole system perspective, from feedstock production through to processes and products. Our funding will apply the tools of modern molecular, cellular and structural biology, systems approaches and bioprocess engineering to develop a range of options for the use of novel crops, products, processes and sustainable biorenewable solutions.

Research underpinning industrial biotechnology and bioenergy is a high priority for BBSRC. Working with industry, other Research Councils and the Technology Strategy Board, we will fund the bioscience, tools and skills to advance industrial biotechnology and bioenergy, and particularly to understand the molecular and cellular basis of key biosynthetic processes and their regulation in a range of organisms and manufacturing environments. This knowledge will then be applied to model and improve production of novel and biorenewable chemicals and materials. Genetic modification and the emerging methods in synthetic biology are crucial tools in tailoring organisms for industrial biotechnology applications.

A major target for research is to convert the complex carbohydrates locked up in plant cell walls (lignocellulose) ultimately into replacements for hydrocarbon-based products and intermediates, including liquid fuels such as petrol, diesel and aviation fuel. Capitalising on the strength of UK plant and microbial science, and the success of the BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Centre, we will support research to improve the efficiency of crop production for biomass (maintaining or improving production but with reduced inputs of energy, fertiliser, agrichemicals and water), optimise yield and composition of biomass, and develop new knowledge and tools to help break down plant biomass to provide substrates for conversion into biofuels and other products. Approaches that make use of waste residues from food crops, or non-food crops that can be grown on marginal land, and thus do not compete with food production, are particularly important here.

Case study: Biofuels

John McGeehan University of Portsmouth
Scientists from The University of York, University of Portsmouth, and the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory have discovered a new enzyme, used by tiny marine wood-borers called 'gribble' to break down wood, that could help inform the development of industrial processes to turn waste materials, such as paper, scrap wood and straw, into liquid fuel. Image shows 3D structure of a cellulase enzyme (blue), solved at the Diamond Light Source, interacting with the cellulose substrate (green).
Image: John McGeehan/University of Portsmouth

Algae and microbes offer other potential routes to chemicals and biofuels; chemical biology coupled with cellular and molecular biology, genetics and modelling will provide knowledge to help increase the accumulation and/or secretion of target hydrocarbons, and diversify the options available to produce these chemicals at industrial scale. Further opportunities lie in the use of alternative feedstocks, including municipal waste, syngas, and industrial waste such as CO2, and approaches that integrate thermochemical and biological waste conversion technologies.

We will also focus on research underpinning biopharmaceutical production and manufacture, building on the investment and expertise from the Bioprocessing Research Industry Club (BRIC).

Other countries, particularly the USA and Brazil, have made substantial public investments in bioenergy. We will work with international partners to benefit UK researchers and leverage BBSRC's investment, enabling us to tackle large-scale challenges that are difficult or too costly to do alone.

With its strong science base the UK is well placed to be a world-leader in industrial biotechnology and bioenergy research, with benefits not only in generating high quality 'green' products and services, but also boosting the economy through the manufacture of biorenewable products as attractive alternatives to petrochemical products.

2013/14 update – what's new?

  • Increased emphasis on the broader applications of industrial biotechnology in addition to renewable energy, including chemical feedstocks, industrial raw materials and intermediates, and high value chemicals and biopharmaceuticals
  • New plans to support the development of a cohesive industrial biotechnology research community in the UK, highly engaged with industry
  • Greater recognition of the role of BBSRC, working with others, in supporting the growth of the UK bioeconomy by encouraging the translation of excellent research closer to application

Key priorities

  • Position the UK as a recognised centre for industrial biotechnology and bioenergy (IBBE) research by establishing a range of academic-led IBBE networks to engage with business and other stakeholders
  • In collaboration with the Technology Strategy Board, establish the Industrial Biotechnology Catalyst to support the translation of research that is led by industry or academia
  • Lead the bioenergy element of the RCUK Energy programme by generating the knowledge and skills to inform a range of sustainable, low carbon bioenergy solutions
  • Apply synthetic biology, systems biology and modelling to tackle industrial biotechnology and bioenergy research challenges at a range of scales and addressing a variety of feedstocks
  • Further enhance UK capacity in bioenergy and biopharmaceuticals processing research by building on our successful investments in the BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Centre and the Bioprocessing Research Industry Club
  • Strengthen links and joint working with international partners, particularly Europe, Japan and Brazil, to seek leverage for UK investments and to enhance translation
  • Continue to explore societal issues associated with bioenergy and industrial biotechnology, e.g. through public dialogue and our Networks in Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy
  • Explore options for delivering impact from industrial biotechnology and bioenergy research, in particular through BBSRC-associated research and innovation campuses