Biosynthesis Goes Green

Thanks to recent advances in genetic engineering, microbiology and biochemistry, it is now possible to synthesize the multitude of organic substances – simple or complex – that a cell would not normally produce.

Biosynthesis is a method of producing organic substances using living cells. This involves the introduction of a genetic sequence, comprising the instructions for the manufacture of a specific substance in the DNA of a host cell, such as an algae, a bacterium or a yeast. The natural process of synthesis within the host cell, usually used for its growth and reproduction, begins to reproduce the target substance whose genetic code was initially inserted into its DNA.

Nowadays, biosynthesis can produce almost all types of organic molecules. The limiting factor, presently, lies in the identification of the proper host organism and the correct method. This last step is decisive for the cost of the engineering needed to transform a natural cell into a biosynthetic plant. Large-scale production by biosynthesis is done in bioreactors, genetic engineering vessels capable of synthesizing molecules identical to the original, pure and continuous.

The applications, and potential applications, of biosynthesis are found in many sectors. It is likely that this advancing technology will come to affect important aspects of our daily lives in the medium term. For example, the pharmaceutical industry has been using biosynthesis since the 1970s to produce insulin, required for the control of diabetes. Industrial Roche AG developed the method of extracting insulin from the pig pancreas (a costly and random method) through the use of host bacteria. Architects are also interested in biosynthesis, particularly in the development of biomaterials created from cells used as carbon or limestone wells. The development of bio-fuel also massively uses biosynthesis. Not to mention the food industry in which the race for the production of synthetic meat is launched. Big agriculture as well as manufacturers of computer components are also of great interest.

Since the recent developments in cannabis laws in the United States and Canada, thereby favoring the emergence of a legal and regulated cannabis market, this market is in a constant state of evolution, and could triple in revenue generation over the next seven years. The cannabis industry in particular is therefore added to the long list of industries that are now focusing on biosynthesis.

In Europe, regulations are also beginning to open up for potential application, and this market could become the world’s largest in the next five years. The cannabis flower will inevitably become a trading product by its nature undifferentiated that can be transformed into high value-added products in medical, food and cosmetic applications.

The cannabis industry, especially for its medical and pharmaceutical sector, has several advantages from the employment of biosynthesis technology. The cannabis plant, on its own, is relatively inefficient as a biological plant, producing only 5% of cannabinoids with nearly 95% of biomass waste. This crop requires very large surface areas, whether outdoors or in a greenhouse, it takes time to fully mature and consumes a large amount of inputs to produce the crop. Commercialization requires an expensive extraction and purification step, the main concern at the center of research in the competitive distinction among current producers, and the quality of the extracts are variable and can sometimes prove to be inconsistent mixtures or unusable.

The benefits that biosynthesis can bring to the cannabis industry include the significant reduction in resource use, its ecological footprint, and the consequent reduction in the need for capital.

Employing the techniques of biosynthesis, cannabis production can become continuous and non-cyclical as it is in the case of high-tech agriculture. This makes it possible to synthesize rare cannabinoids on a large scale (CBG, CBN, CBVD or THCV are naturally produced in less than 1% in the plant.) This low productivity is not economic in traditional agriculture because the yield is unsustainably low. The current quality of biosynthesis products largely meets the requirements of the cannabis industry but also the standards expected in pharmacy.

However, it needs to be understood that exponential growth in the number of biosynthetic organisms and components as well as its high disruptive potential may be a concern for some governments. The repercussions of these developments on the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity may be concerns, as can be the disruption these technologies may cause to the millions of traditional farmers. But in the long term, it must be recognized that the future of agriculture and industry in general should be in the use of biosynthesis. In a similar way to the incorporation of artificial intelligence in daily life, the ultimate benefits will come to greatly outweigh the benefits in the development of this technology.

Tahina Ramanoara

Analyst, Blue Lakes Advisors

06.06.2019

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