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Biotechnology: Charting a Course for a Sustainable Bioeconomy

The EU commission has recently announced targeted actions to boost biotechnology and biomanufacturing within the Union as the commission reviews the Bioeconomy strategy in 2025. We asked Academician Merja Penttilä and the managing director of Finnish Bioindustries, Alexandra Peth, why this is important.

Our pursuit of a sustainable future finds hope in the bioeconomy. It beckons us away from the limited and polluting grip of fossil fuels, offering a path paved with renewable, biological solutions. However, a significant challenge arises: can readily available biomass truly replace fossil raw materials to meet our ever-growing energy and material needs? While renewable resources hold immense potential, the reality is that current biomass quantities wouldn't sustainably support the vast demands of the global economy. This is where advanced biotechnology and biomanufacturing step in as crucial complements, offering solutions to enhance biomass efficiency, its recycling and creation of alternative bio-based products. 

Merja Penttilä, Academician

“Biotechnology itself is nothing new, this is how we have produced wine and bread, penicillin and insulin. The difference is today is that we can go far beyond these traditional products” Merja Penttilä, Academician

Through advancements in genetic engineering, use of microbes in industrial production, and enzyme technology, we can optimize biomass conversion processes, reduce waste generation, and develop novel end products and materials, like bioplastics, that are not directly dependent on virgin biomass inputs. Furthermore microbial processes can also use biological waste streams as feedstock - enabling a true circular bioeconomy.

“There are no waste streams in nature, everything that nature creates is food for another organism to build its cells and organs - biotechnology can harness this extraordinary cycle of life to create new products”. Merja Penttilä

Without integrating advanced biotechnology into the bioeconomy framework, the goal of replacing fossil resources with biomass appears unattainable.

Alexandra Peth, Finnish Bioindustries
"It is crucial to make sure biotechnology and biomanufacturing is integrated into the EU Bioeconomy strategy and that the regulatory landscape in the EU enables and supports the opportunities of biotechnology." Alexandra Peth, Managing Director, Finnish Bioindustries

The Arsenal of Biotechnology: Shaping a Greener Future

Biotechnology offers a vast array of tools and techniques for engineering living organisms for industrial, agricultural and healthcare applications. This powerful toolkit empowers us to produce biofuels, bioplastics, food, feed, pharmaceuticals, and biochemicals from renewable biomass or even biological waste streams and CO2. By harnessing these possibilities, we can significantly reduce our dependence on fossil resources and mitigate the negative environmental impacts associated with their extraction and use. Furthermore, biotechnology plays a vital role in improving crop yields and resilience. This ensures food security while minimizing the ecological footprint of agriculture, allowing us to grow more food on less land.

“Biotechnology is an enabling technology that will transform industries across disciplines. We have already seen its impact on pharma and food - the third wave will be in materials and chemicals.”  Alexandra Peth

Synthetic Biology: A New Frontier in Bioinnovation

Synthetic biology, a more recent and revolutionary branch of biotechnology, takes this potential to even greater heights. By designing and constructing entirely new biological parts, devices, and systems, synthetic biology allows us to reprogram organisms to perform specific tasks with greater efficiency and to create entirely new biological functions that do not exist in nature. In medicine synthetic biology offers unprecedented therapies for previously untreatable diseases. This innovative field holds also immense promise for producing bio-based products more sustainably and economically, encompassing everything from biofuels and chemicals to novel materials and therapeutic treatments. The rapid development of AI, machine learning and robotics has further accelerated the development of biotechnology.

“Synthetic Biology has already allowed us to produce egg white without chicken, dyes without plants or fossil raw materials as well as fully biologically derived biodegradable plastics. I believe that it is our imagination that is the only limit to what we can achieve using these powerful tools.” Merja Penttilä

The Power of Speed: Accelerating the Biorevolution

Biotechnology and synthetic biology can significantly accelerate the transition to a bioeconomy by enabling the rapid development and scaling of bio-based solutions. Advanced genetic engineering tools, such as CRISPR-Cas9, and synthetic biology's modular approach to organism design can dramatically shorten the time it takes to develop and optimize new biological systems for industrial applications. This agility is crucial in addressing the pressing challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss, resource depletion, and global health.

However, realizing this potential requires not only scientific and technological advancements but also supportive policies, ethical considerations, and public engagement to ensure that the development of the bioeconomy is sustainable, equitable, and beneficial for all.

Global Initiatives: Fostering a Bio-based Future

The significance of biotechnologies is echoed by both the U.S. and the E.U. The U.S. initiative, backed by a substantial $2 billion commitment, aims to harness the power of biotechnology to lower consumer prices, create high-quality jobs, fortify supply chains, enhance health outcomes, and reduce carbon emissions. Key measures include significant investments by various US state departments to expand biomanufacturing for essential medications, accelerate the development of bio-based materials and chemicals, and build a domestic bioindustrial manufacturing base. This initiative not only highlights the administration's commitment to leveraging biotechnology for economic and environmental benefits but also sets a strategic direction for the USA to lead in the global bioeconomy, ensuring resilience against supply chain disruptions and fostering innovation across various sectors.

In the E.U. the biotechnology sector faces challenges in commercialisation, regulatory complexity, access to finance, and public acceptance. The commission's proposal to boost biotechnology and biomanufacturing aims to address these hurdles and align biotechnology with the E.U.'s long-term competitiveness strategy.

"Currently the authorisation process for Genetically Modified Organisms products in the EU is significantly longer than in the US, for example. This is a huge challenge for European companies' competitiveness." Alexandra Peth


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