'Cleaning up' with Biotechnology

'Cleaning up' with Biotechnology

How can primary problems in the control of industrial chemicals and biological wastes be remedied using biotechnology?

Gil:At first I suspected our questioner had "genetic engineering" in mind when asking about "biotechnology." But when I searched for "biotechnology waste management" on the Web the entries had little to do with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), reminding me that "biotechnology" -- in the traditional sense of "biological technology" -- has a long and venerable history in waste management. Here's a pretty succinct explanation of the process:

Sewage farms -- a public service we all need but prefer not to think about -- are a classic example of traditional biotechnology. So are the compost heaps in many suburban gardens. The voracious appetites of bacteria are used to break down the huge quantities of human wastes discharged into the world's sewers each day. They and other microbes also help turn leaves, twigs and vegetable scraps into fertile humus to improve garden soil. However, modern biotechnology can do more. Recent developments in biotechnology are providing new ways to clean up industrial wastes and yielding efficient new production methods that are less polluting than traditional processes. Biotechnology can even help convert industrial and other wastes into useful products.
(Additional information is available here.)

A 2002 report estimated the total worldwide sales of environmental biotechnology products (microorganisms, enzymes, microbial blends, and nutrients) for U.S. manufacturers at $103.5 million, projecting an AAGR (average annual growth rate) of 8.3% to reach $153.87 million by 2006. This probably understates their significance, since the waste treatment industries that use microbial and other biotechnologies represent far greater activity. Studies estimate $82 billion for "waste" treatment & remediation $19 billion for pollution abatement plus $8.4 billion capital investment (7.5% of total capital investment)

The International Organization for Biotechnology and Bioengineering's Working Group on Integrated Biosystems takes it a step further:

Integrated Biosystems concern the integration of bioprocesses for the conversion of biodegradable materials and wastes into products. In a biosystem, the by-products (wastes) of one process become the resources (inputs) for another process.... Such systems are being applied in solid waste management, wastewater treatment, water recycling, urban agriculture, low-input high output agriculture, production of bio-chemicals, etc.
According to research conducted by the Tufts University Veterinary School, "biotechnology refers to the practical application of modern laboratory techniques such as recombinant DNA. Although most biotechnology research has been medical, more and more is being undertaken for agricultural and environmental uses." This would include customization of organism through genetic engineering to improve their effectiveness, or to tailor their appetites to the waste streams at hand.

Biotechnology, considered more broadly, is the development of products or processes using plants, animals or micro-organisms. Sometimes this does involve genetic engineering (altering the genetic material of living things so that they can produce new substances or perform new functions). This fact sheet (PDF) describes some of the many clever non-genetic engineering biotechnologies that can be used to protect the environment better and conserve biodiversity.

Phytoremediation, for example, uses plants to selective extract and concentration pollutants like heavy metals from soils; bioremediation commonly refers to the use of microorganisms, most commonly to detoxify soils of organic pollutants as well

Living Machines are polycultural aquatic ecosystems that are "designed to evolve"; they are seeded with a diverse mixes of organism whose population mix evolves in response to the particular nutrient mix of the waste stream. Developer Dr John Todd finds that the ecosystem of organisms can do the job far better than a human manager trying to come up with a precise recipe. LMs have been used to treat urban sewage and the relatively benign industrial waste water from food processing plants; I don't know that they've been as successful with more toxic industrial "wastes".

So there are many extant options before one turns to the heavy guns of GMOs. The potential advantage of GMOs: custom tailoring the organism to the waste stream. The potential downside: GMOs in ecosystems (and agriculture) present a very different risk profile for genetic contamination than GMOs in contained reactor vessels in pharmaceutical plants.

My bias: always try the low risk, low complexity, low energy strategies first. If there's interest, we can address GMO treatment technologies in a future ATE.

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Gil Friend, systems ecologist and business strategist, is president and CEO of Natural Logic, Inc. -- offering advisory services and tools that help companies and communities prosper by embedding the laws of nature at the heart of enterprise. Sign up online to receive his monthly column via email. Read Gil's blog here.