The biotechnology revolution – delivering a greener and cleaner future

Rob Field, Professor of Chemistry and Director of the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology, explores whether COVID-19 could be the catalyst for biotechnology to provide solutions to some of our biggest global challenges.

Biotechnology promises a revolution in the way we make our future medicines, materials and fuels. The big challenge is moving industries from oil-based resources to a greener biotech alternative. How can this be achieved? 

Well, the Second World War provided the motivation to get the antibiotic penicillin from being a lab-based curiosity into mainstream use, as it was needed to treat injured combatants and civilians.

The COVID-19 emergency could act as a very similar catalyst to fast-track innovation and scale up the ‘biotechnology revolution’ so it meets the challenges of the health crisis – and then the potentially even bigger existential risk of climate change.

Recorded in September 2020


Lecture transcript

Hello. I'm Rob Field, Professor of Chemistry and Director of the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology - the MIB. As part of the COVID Catalyst series, I've been asked to say a few words about the impacts and opportunities from a biotechnology perspective that arises as a result of the current COVID situation that we find ourselves in.

So, biotechnology is a broad church – a combination of science, engineering and technology. And it's only really through the combination of these activities that one can truly realise impact. So, biotechnology tackles the challenge of how to make and manufacture the molecules and materials that we rely on today - whether that's drugs, plastics, food and fuels - many different opportunities.

Critically, the goal is to achieve production of these entities in a sustainable manner - green and clean. So, it's interesting to look back to see what have been the drivers over the last century or so in the biotechnology space.

What has enabled innovation? What has been the requirement for innovation to take things forward? If we step back to the early part of the 20th century, it was fairly conventional microbiology that led to the discovery of penicillin in the 1920s.

But it wasn't until the 1940s that really anything arose from that in terms of impact on human health.

So, it's one thing to have an academic idea - an academic discovery is something (different) altogether, to scale that to societal impact.

What was it that drove penicillin to become a go-to antibiotic accessible to all essentially? Well, the 1940s of course was the time of World War II and it was the unmet need there for medicines, both for society at large but also for soldiers and so forth, that drove that process through from academic discovery through, industrialisation if you will, to get access to drugs at scale.

It really was that time of global strife that caused the innovation and the integration of academic and commercial activities that were necessary to realise the potential of penicillin, and the lasting impact that is still to this day has on all of us.

So, there's some points there that chime with the current situation we find ourselves in with COVID-19. Globally we're in a time of strife. We know that we don't yet have a vaccine that can be rolled out to protect us. We know that, despite governments chasing for increased diagnostics and more regular testing, we have problems both with the scale of that process and also with the accuracy of many of the diagnostics that are available as well.

So, there are imminent, immediate drivers in the COVID situation to look at drugs, vaccines, diagnostics - all areas which impinge on biotechnology.

Indeed, although the COVID situation in the UK only really kicked off back in March of this year, in MIB we already have active programmes in all of the areas that I've just mentioned. So, together with our associated spin-out companies and industrial partners, we've got R&D programmes up and running in COVID biomarkers and new diagnostics, biocatalytic groups to make small molecule antiviral drugs, for instance.

And a lot of this, again, is still dependent on that academic push with the underpinning technologies that allow us to make proteins, nucleic acids, and carbohydrates as potential therapeutics. It's a pipeline - you can't disconnect the academic discovery from the industrialisation if you really want to move quickly.

You need to integrate and it's that agile nature with which MIB sits between the conventional academic and the commercial that allows us to do that.

We now have a much better molecular biology toolkit and that that will allow us to more radically engineer biology, devising bio-based manufacturing processes that couldn't have been conceived of probably even only five or ten years ago.

Essentially what that entails then is to take the components that nature affords us, but to combine them in ways that nature has never explored before and in turn, then, by looking at how you take those components and stitch together different machineries, it allows us to access new molecules and materials. The kinds of materials that are not already in nature - they are new to nature; entities not currently known to man that could form the basis of a new generation of diagnostics and medicines or recyclable fabrics and plastics.

But of course, if we're going to take academic ideas all the way through to societal impact, clearly there's a piece in between there where the commercial marketplace and industry (are) involved. One of the challenges that we face, of course, is that many of the industries have got familiar with and comfortable with oil-based feedstocks and chemical processes - neither of which are exactly environmentally benign.

Going forwards, we're going to need to address that. Disrupting those industries will require new thinking about how sustainable manufacturing can integrate with their processes.

So, we need a circular economy - one with a net zero carbon impact overall. We are looking for the opportunity to disrupt in those areas in particular. So, the future is bright. The future is green and clean. We need to make sure that we're at the forefront of this biotechnology innovation and implementation revolution as we go forward and Manchester is very well placed to take that step to replace some of the more conventional industries that Manchester has been well known for over the centuries.