May 11, 2020 at 5:00 am ET
In every corner of the country, science industries are stepping up to fight the coronavirus outbreak.
Biopharmaceutical companies are working in overdrive to develop treatments. And the country’s animal biotech sector is stepping up, as one company has received funding from the Department of Defense to develop human antibodies using genetically engineered cattle.
Then, there’s the companies that make up the industrial biotechnology sector — also known as the biobased economy.
This sector, which is anchored by synthetic biology startups and renewable chemical and sustainable fuel producers, is helping in unique ways. And, in doing so, providing a blueprint for how we can create a more resilient world in the future.
That is, if governments take decisive policy actions to allow them to grow.
Synbio companies like Twist Bioscience, for example, are using their expertise in creating synthetic DNA to make viral sequences of COVID-19, allowing researchers to avoid handling potentially dangerous live pathogens in testing and vaccine development.
It also allows them to track the evolution of the virus across the globe and chart any mutations that must be considered in a cure.
There is promise that this research will lead to a test for multiple viruses, including SARS, MERS and influenza — allowing those on the front lines to cast a wide net in tracking future outbreaks.
However, without a clear government system for the emerging synbio field, the trajectory of the industry is uncertain. One bill, that would establish a national framework around advancing synthetic biology, remains in committee.
Of course, those on the ground using these tests and protecting us against the coronavirus — including researchers, doctors, nurses and first responders — are most vulnerable to infection.
And using the same understanding to manufacture DNA, researchers are working to re-engineer conventional fabrics and plastics using plants instead of petroleum. Protecting those who are protecting us is paramount, but we can’t ignore the mounds of plastic waste that will be waiting for us once we overcome this pandemic.
Data collected before the pandemic show plastics accounted for up to 25 percent of hospital waste. One can only assume that percentage will increase.
These biobased products can be biodegradable or recyclable, significantly reducing the amount of waste coming out of any surge.
Companies are even reprogramming microbes to produce high quantities of some of nature’s strongest materials like spider silk, which is extremely strong and lightweight. Increased commercial production of such materials would be welcomed by several industries, particularly medicine.
But to help in the immediate response, several companies are using their biobased manufacturing platforms to meet demand for sterilizing products.
Amyris, whose biotech work includes food ingredients, cannabinoids and personal care ingredients, has joined ethanol producers in ramping up hand sanitizer production using its plant-based squalane that is made from sugarcane instead of sourced from shark livers.
And after learning of test plate shortages, biotech company Novozymes joined a group of partners that includes the LEGO group to develop a method for washing plates quickly using high-efficiency enzymes that circumvent the need for hot water.
These response efforts from the biobased economy are just the latest examples of why we need to encourage investment in agile technologies that strengthen our economy’s resilience in the face of a crisis.
The sustainable fuels sector is actively working to decarbonize the aviation sector, using many of the same sustainable sources to make biobased materials — a game-changer that would significantly clean up our air and improve public health.
But these companies — many of which are in rural economies — are developing these breakthroughs without much of the policy support afforded to other industries.
These policies include tax credits, laws that restrict carbon emissions like California’s low carbon fuel standard, and programs that work with these companies to secure financing and build capital.
There is no federal renewable chemical tax credit currently, and policies to drive renewable fuel adoption like the Renewable Fuel Standard have been grossly manipulated.
At the state level, three have passed renewable chemical tax credits — Minnesota, Iowa and Maine — and only one joins California in adopting a low carbon fuel standard, Oregon.
Simply put, the biobased economy is stepping up to fight the coronavirus outbreak, but so much potential remains. We must build on this progress and create a more resilient world. It’s time to get serious. Policy must catch up.
Stephanie Batchelor is vice president of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization’s Industrial and Environmental Section. Stephanie also serves as the team leader for below50 USA and was a founding member of the California Air Resource Board’s low carbon fuel standard advisory panel.
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