Forward to the Future: Cheap, Plant-Based Materials Coming Thanks to Bioengineering Revolution

The following article was part of a Star-Ledger and op-ed series on engineering fields that will change the world by Rutgers School of Engineering faculty.

By Shishir P. S. Chundawat 

Imagine a world of biology-based industries, where we have tapped into the processes of life itself to convert plant matter and municipal waste into environmentally sustainable fuels, biodegradable plastics and other materials that support our global economy.

That world already exists. Though not yet part of the mainstream, some bio-based products (including water bottles derived from corn stalks and laundry detergents derived from sugarcane) and biofuels (corn grain-based ethanol blends for cars and jet-grade fuels derived from plants, municipal solid waste and/or algae) have already reached our grocery stores, gas stations and the aviation industry. Together, they contribute hundreds of billions of dollars to the U.S. economy and support millions of American jobs.

Over the next decade, expected breakthroughs in bioengineering will make the creation of bio-based products – which are materials, chemicals and energy derived from renewable biological resources – much cheaper and more sustainable. This will lead to exponential growth of the bio-based industry, with tremendous benefits for our economy and the environment. And these products will become much more noticeable in our everyday lives.

The next big breakthroughs are coming from DNA sequencing – a field jumpstarted by the late Rutgers scientist Joachim Messing – and recent advances in synthetic biology, a field at the crossroads of engineering, biology, physics and computational sciences.

Today, most advanced bioproducts and biofuels are made by placing corn grains or cornstalks in vats of enzymes that transform them into soluble sugars like glucose. (Recent advances in my lab have focused on making this process cheaper by designing new, supercharged enzymes as well as more efficient bioconversion processes was highlighted on a television show recently). Engineered microbes, like yeast, then convert the plant-derived sugars into ethanol or into intermediate chemicals used to make biodegradable plastics.

This process is inherently more monetarily and environmentally sustainable than the conversion of crude petroleum into non-biodegradable plastics. Currently, petroleum conversion into desired chemicals or fuels involves no biological processes and often requires tremendous temperatures and pressures to efficiently run these processes.

But DNA-based synthetic biology advances will enable the creation of bioproducts and biofuels at new levels of cost efficiency and reduced environmental impact. We will feed plant-derived simple sugars to genetically modified bacteria (E. coli) and other industrial-grade microbes – and watch the microbes create plastics, fuels and other materials through their own “hacked” biological processes. This will happen at a fraction of the current cost of creating these materials, and will help make petroleum-based chemicals, plastics and even gasoline eventually obsolete. 

Bacteria and yeast are naturally adept at converting simple sugars into complex molecules. Humans have harnessed their ‘bio-power’ for millennia to convert grapes into wine, cereal grains into beer and milk into cheese and yogurt. The transformation of microbes into living factories can be seen as an extension of this ancient and naturally evolved bio-industry.

And in addition to benefiting our economy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the coming bioproduct breakthroughs promise another transformation: a reduction in household and municipal waste. We will be able to convert any waste biomass into useful materials, and to recycle those materials when they break down or are no longer needed.

Sustainable and closed-loop systems that can efficiently recycle wastes into useful products will become even more critical in the coming century, as humankind prepares to take its first steps to explore and inhabit our solar system.  

Think of the power-generating device that Christopher Lloyd’s character “Doc” Brown uses in Back to the Future; he fills it with banana peels and municipal trash to power his flying car with ‘clean’ energy. That’s an exaggerated metaphor for the direction our society will take in the near future.

Of course, we will need to overcome significant hurdles before being able to use microbes for mass production. The machinery inside these cells exists to sustain the life of the cell itself – not to produce huge quantities of materials useful to human civilization. But engineers at Rutgers and other research centers around the world are working on this challenge.

My Rutgers colleague Haoran Zhang is engineering and introducing new metabolic pathways in E. coli and other microbes to convert sugars into whole suite of diverse chemicals and pharmaceuticals. Chuck Dismukes, another Rutgers researcher, is seeking to use photosynthesis and let sunlight power these processes in algae or other organisms. My own research team is leading a U.S. Department of Energy-funded effort to understand how plant cells capture sunlight to produce complex sugar polymers like cellulose in order to ultimately improve crop yields.

As we consider the changes that are possible over the next decade, let’s paraphrase “Doc” Brown’s bold statement at the end of that 1980s time-traveling blockbuster:

The way we’re going, we won’t need petroleum – or significant amounts of waste, money and greenhouse gas emissions – to power, build and inclusively grow our society. A sustainable bio-based future for humankind is nearer than we think.

Shishir P. S. Chundawat is an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.