A Call for Clarity

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In mid-June, BIO 2004, the annual convention of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), Washington, D.C., took place in San Francisco. It was an impressive assemblage of international participants , BIO says about 17,000 people attended, representing 61 countries. The meeting was all the more memorable for drawing a small coterie of the "anti" crowd: anti-biotechnology, anti-genetically modified foods, anti-globalization, etc. They, in turn, drew hundreds of city police officers, and the area was kept under heavy patrol.

BIO used the occasion to highlight a recent report, "New Biotech Tools for a Cleaner Environment" (available for download or in summary format). The environmental focus of the report's title, however, doesn't quite match its content. It is a compilation of a small number of successful implementations of "new" biotechnology in industrial processes: production of vitamin B2; bioplastics (notably Cargill-Dow's polylactic acid, now in commercial production); enzymatic routes to wood pulp bleaching, food processing, textile treatment and a few others.

The report uses these examples to project an across-the-board savings in pollution emissions, energy or water consumption, or petroleum usage (as a raw material). From those, it makes a quick jump to recommended policy considerations: using industrial biotechnology for emissions credits, funding bioenergy projects under the Energy Policy Act, or pollution-control projects under the Clean Air Act's research program. At this point, you certainly might be tempted to ask, "Well, yes, everyone is for a cleaner environment, but which non-biotechnology projects will be defunded in place of biotech ones?"

The report makes some recommendations that are questionable, to say the least. It implies that a lot of pre-recombinant-DNA developments, such as using enzymes in household detergents instead of phosphates (which started in the 1970s) are part of the "new" industrial biotechnology. Then, it presents some shockingly broad-brushed generalizations about the environmental benefits of biotechnology. It states: "This report does not attempt to quantify the costs associated with adoption of biotechnology processes." My favorite generalization is a calculation of how much petroleum would be saved if all plastics were replaced , hey, presto! , by polylactic-acid-based ones. The answer, by the way, is 90 million to 145 million barrels per year in the United States.

Overall, the report encourages all of us to pay more attention to biotechnology's potential. "Because industrial biotechnology is so new, its benefits are still not well known or understood by industry," the report states. Also, "In many cases, the biocatalysts or whole-cell processes are so new that chemical engineers and product development specialists in the private sector are not yet aware that they are available for deployment."

This blithe assumption that biotechnology isn't in wider use in industry simply because people don't know about it particularly irritates me. Chemical (and other) engineers have been working with biotechnology for decades. The number of "old" biotechnology processes arguably is larger or has had a more significant impact than all of the "new" biotechnology processes put together. Such established technology includes wastewater treatment, vegetable oil processing, terpenes from wood, rayon, polysaccharides from seaweed , the list goes on and on. Some of these have lost favor as a result of synthetic chemistry, but others are garnering renewed interest, mostly based on their economics. The list of researchers, projects, conferences and commercial ventures based on biotechnology, whether old or new, is a long one. The engineers working on these projects have had to deal with the realities of capital costs for equipment, market acceptance, and, of course, environmental considerations.

I'm a big fan of biotechnology. The potential is there. But it's a little late to claim that biotechnology will magically cure environmental or resource issues if we just pay some more attention to it. A lot of attention has already been paid. Much basic process development, engineering and product innovation has been done. Many companies and researchers are hard at work , today , on new breakthroughs.

By Nick Basta, editor at large

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