ARC Centre of Excellence in Synthetic Biology

Synthetic Biology


8, Apr 2024

Adding value to industry

Much is being said about the opportunities in precision fermentation, and its potential to benefit the food and chemical industries. But how do we make these technologies more streamlined, cost effective, energy efficient and scalable?

These are among the questions being explored by Centre researchers at the Queensland University of Technology. Professor Ian O’Hara and Dr Jerome Ramirez are investigating best-practice precision fermentation, the process used to translate synthetic biology to industry.

Precision fermentation (PF) uses many of the same fundamental principles of fermentation used to produce wines, beers and foods for centuries. The difference in PF, however, is that the key catalytic agents (microbes like yeast) are reprogrammed to be more efficient, higher yielding or to produce specific, customised products. It’s like a high-tech brewery, where fibrous, sugary or starchy agricultural crops are placed in a bioreactor to feed engineered microbes that ultimately grow or make new products.

‘Precision fermentation has significant commercial opportunities,’ says Professor O’Hara. ‘The technology offers the opportunities to value-add to businesses in agriculture and manufacturing. It also provides onshore manufacturing opportunities and creates new knowledge industries, particularly in regional areas.’

The PF process requires a steady supply of sugars that the engineered microbes consume to grow or make the products. Luckily, these sugars are available from fibrous, sugary or starchy agricultural crops readily available across our country. Microbes can also be developed to use fibre, starch or sugars such as sucrose to make products faster, using fewer energy and nutrients. The aim is not to compete with edible crops but to use lower value by-products, such as plant biomass or agricultural wastes.

‘Engineering is key to unlocking synthetic biology technologies,’ adds Professor O’Hara. ‘Through integrating synbio development and engineering we can provide much greater yields. It allows us to deepen manufacturing to move away from just producing commodity products into new high-value consumer facing or industrial chemical products with a higher value on global markets.’

Yet a few challenges remain, capital and energy costs being chief among them.

‘The problem of scale has been the bottleneck for precision fermentation globally,’ says Dr Ramirez. ‘We want to develop system models that can optimise processes towards lower capital and operating costs and demonstrate the impact of using renewable energy sources.’

According to a recent CSIRO report, Australia could be a leading supplier of sustainably manufactured products across a range of industries by expanding its local precision fermentation capabilities.

Australia’s influential Synthetic Biology Roadmap says if current market growth rates are maintained, an emerging global shortage of both commercial scale precision fermentation infrastructure and expertise can be expected.

A recent Forbes article cited the burgeoning demand for alternative proteins to displace the 272 million tonnes of meat consumed globally each year. That equates to roughly 500,000 times the current capacity of fermentation.

The CoESB researchers are evaluating how much it will cost to use agricultural products in PF processes. This is being done by developing mathematical models of how the microbes grow and the economic costs of production.

Different scenarios can then be explored to determine how industry can best implement PF-based production and to determine what researchers, policymakers and businesses need to do to grow it.

‘But we really need to look first at the whole system from an economic, environmental and societal perspective,’ says Dr Ramirez. ‘We need to verify that PF actually adds value and does not aggravate problems such as resource depletion, climate change or hunger.’