Engineering biology, also known as synthetic biology, uses natural products and processes to create new solutions to tricky problems.
For example, synthetic fibres create waste, pollute the environment, and take decades or even centuries to decompose. Engineering biology offers ways to make new, nature-based fibres that biodegrade easily.
Here are some of the exciting ways engineering biology can improve sustainability.
It sounds futuristic. But engineering biology builds on science that has been delivering benefits across health, agriculture, and other sectors for decades.
Take insulin, for example, which is used to treat diabetes. This pharmaceutical is made through a process called precision fermentation. Precision fermentation uses genetically programmed microorganisms to create useful products. Adding these microorganisms to a bioreactor, along with the right nutrients, can produce a compound identical to the insulin our bodies produce naturally. This process is also used to make rennet for cheese and many other useful goods.
Advances in engineering biology are now revolutionising processes like precision fermentation. Microorganisms can be engineered in a matter of months or even weeks. New designs for bioreactors are making these processes cheaper and more efficient. Using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, scientists can test out how these innovations will perform before they even reach the lab.
Exciting new science and technology comes with important questions about how we use it, what the risks are, and who it impacts. As Australia’s national science agency, improving the lives of people everywhere is at the core of what we do.
Our researchers are focussed on pursuing innovation responsibly, by asking the difficult questions up front. This way, our future technologies are shaped and guided by the Australian public.
How do we do it?
Ending plastic waste
We’re harnessing the power of engineering biology to tackle the pollution caused by plastic waste. Our Ending Plastic Waste Mission has a goal of an 80 per cent reduction in the amount of plastic waste entering the Australian environment by 2030. Engineering biology is just one of the many areas of science we are using to achieve this mission.
To uncover how, we are zooming right the level of living cells. Cells contain thousands of different types of protein-based machines called enzymes, which act as important catalysts. Each enzyme helps speed up a particular chemical reaction, which keeps the cell healthy and functioning.
With engineering biology, we can create new cells and microorganisms that release the specific enzymes we need to speed up certain chemical reactions.
One of the big issues in recycling plastics is that mechanical methods can only break the plastic down to a certain level. But enzymes can give us new ways to turn the plastic back to its building blocks. From there, we can reuse it to make a range of keep it out of our environment.
Learn about the clever ways enzymes can help us tackle plastic waste.
Cleaning up food waste
Let’s consider how engineering biology can help tackle another sustainability issue: food waste. About 7.6 million tonnes of food goes to waste in Australia each year. That’s about 312kg per person!
This could be reduced by redistributing surplus food to areas where people need it most. Or by industries making changes to how food is produced and supplied.
Other strategies can help make sure the food we throw out at home doesn’t just go to landfill. Engineering biology can play an exciting role in this, for example by turning food waste into a filling meal for Australian livestock.
As you’ll see, enzymes play an important part in this. But there’s also a new waste superhero on the scene: black soldier fly larvae. at how these insects are helping fight food waste.
The innovative field of engineering biology is bringing together scientists and engineers from disciplines as diverse as AI, molecular biology, chemistry, manufacturing, and social science. With this wide-ranging expertise, it’s set to help tackle Australia’s biggest challenges, and make our industries more sustainable.