Biology can be harnessed to produce a large share of the global economy’s physical materials, potentially with improved performance and sustainability. Fermentation, for centuries used to brew beer and make bread, is now being used to create high-value ingredients such as collagen and spider silk. According to McKinsey, biologically made materials could generate $4 trillion a year over the next ten to twenty years. However, biomanufactured materials are not likely to displace petroleum derived products until they can compete on both performance and cost. Although there has been an explosion in progress in the fields of synthetic biology and microbial engineering, there are still challenges in ensuring that the economics work by creating a compelling value proposition for customers and being able to industrialize the science and scale production. A massive opportunity exists for technologies that can improve the economics of fermentations.
The Alper Lab at UT Austin, in collaboration with the Nelson Lab at The University of Washington, have created the “BioPod” platform for increasing the cost-efficiency of fermentations. In industry, fermentations are started by seeding a liquid culture of microbes into a bioreactor, and then providing conditions for growth and production. With the BioPod system, the microbes are introduced into the bioreactor at the desired final density, enabling the production phase to start almost immediately. Furthermore, these hydrogels can be stored long-term and reused—providing cost savings, standardization, and efficiency with scaling.
A potentially industry-disrupting feature of this platform is that it allows for stable fermentations containing mixtures of cell types and microbes. In liquid cultures, combinations of microbes tend to compete with each other and grow at different rates. The BioPod platform uses 3D printing to achieve precise spatial control. With this platform, it is now economically feasible to distribute production of biomolecules over multiple organisms. It is now possible to replace costly multi-step processes into a continuous production in one bioreactor. Multi-organism fermentations can further lower costs by reducing metabolic loads and enabling supporting cells to transform inexpensive feed to high-value building blocks. Demonstration of the flexibility and robustness of this platform have been highlighted in Nature Communication and Bioactive Materials.2,3 UT and UW are seeking partners to scale this platform in an industry setting.
1. McKinsey Report, The Bio Revolution: Innovations transforming economies, societies, and our lives, May 13, 2020, https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/ pharmaceuticals-and-medical-products/our-insights/the-bio-revolution-innovations-transforming-economies-societies-and-our-lives#
2. Johnston, T.G., Yuan, SF., Wagner, J.M. et al. Nature Communications, vol 11, article number: 563 (2020) https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-14371-4
3. Yuan, SF., et al., Bioactive Materials, 27 Jan 2021, 6(8):2390-2399. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bioactmat.2021.01.019
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