Daphne Ng: Powering a clean planet with synthetic biology

{India] With the global population projected to reach 11.2 billion by 2100 and 97% of population growth expected to be in developing regions, the Earth faces a strain on its resources. In Asia, the most populous continent in the world, rapid growth and economic development in the last century has taken a toll on the environment. To meet the increasing demands of the growing population, deforestation to clear land for human use has resulted in habitat destruction and loss of biodiversity. Human and industrial activities have also led to pollution as well as climate change.

Unfortunately, it is projected that densely populated developing countries will experience the fastest growth, resulting in greater stress on already limited resources. Innovators, researchers, and entrepreneurs are increasingly turning to synthetic biology for the solution. Algae and bacteria have been genetically engineered to produce biofuel, an environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuels. Such approaches could be critical for countries in South Asia which experience high levels of air pollution. Restricted access to clean water is another critical issue that could be partly resolved through the development of microbial biosensors – which are more stable than enzymes – to detect heavy metal contaminants in water.

A significant presence in South Asia, India is the second most populous nation in the world with almost 1.4 billion people. Most of these people clearly stand to gain from synthetic biology applications addressing issues in environmental sustainability. Yet synthetic biology research is still in its infancy in India, and is largely confined to only a few institutes and groups, including the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), and Jawaharlal Nehru University. Only one institute – the Center for Systems and Synthetic Biology, based in the University of Kerala – specializes in synthetic biology.

The scene in India is in stark contrast to the major collaborative research platforms, such as the Singapore Consortium for Synthetic Biology and the Shenzhen Synthetic Biology Association, found in other Asian countries. India must soon catch up to its neighbors – and there is one powerhouse that may help it get there.

Powering a clean planet with synthetic biology

Reliance Industries Limited (RIL) is a private enterprise at the forefront of the synthetic biology scene in India. Founded in 1957 by Dhirubhai Ambani as a small yarn trading business in Masjid Bunder, Mumbai, RIL has grown to become India’s largest private company with businesses in the energy, environmental, textile, and petrochemical sectors.

Through these projects, RIL hopes to develop strategies to power a clean planet. The current R&D focus at RIL is in three key areas: organic waste to kerosene and aviation fuel, Jatropha to aviation fuel and biodiesel, and algae to bio-crude and chemicals. With agriculture the most important sector of Indian economy, accounting for 18 percent of India’s gross domestic product (GDP) and generating millions of tons of agricultural waste each year, RIL’s R&D efforts have the potential to make a drastic impact on Indian agriculture.

RIL is also actively exploring algae-based strategies for a cleaner planet. Algae are highly efficient converters of sunlight and carbon dioxide to stored energy. Advances in gene editing can enable significant increases in algal productivity and/or carbon dioxide capture by photosynthesis – a possible strategy for biochemical production as well as reduction of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere for a clean planet.

RIL’s Rcat HTL technology converts organic content of food waste and agri-residue into renewable kerosene and aviation fuel. Through multi-generation back crossing of Jatropha, the oil yields have been improved to a potentially viable business opportunity for Jatropha plantations on marginal land under rain-fed conditions.

The RIL team is also working on leveraging microbes to produce useful products from waste as well as to contribute to environmental sustainability. For example, RIL has designed novel metabolic pathways in E. coli and Clostridium, enabling the microbes to produce high value biochemicals from waste sugars and syngas – effectively minimizing waste, maximizing the use of syngas, and producing specialty chemicals all at the same time.

RIL’s effort on algae to oil has allowed the company to have a better quantitative understanding of photosynthesis. Similarly deep capabilities in advanced techniques like CRISPR and multiomics platforms will allow RIL to address potential opportunities in agriculture, health, and more.

Algae, grown in bioreactors like these, may help to power a clean planet (Image courtesy of Michael Coghlan on Flickr).

Commercial success need not come at the expense of corporate – or social – responsibility

In the race toward profit, corporate responsibility is often the antithesis of commercial success. However, success has not come at the expense of corporate sustainability for RIL. With the increasing demand for fine chemicals in emerging economies, the global specialty chemicals market is forecast to reach $782.2 billion by 2023. With its emphasis on synthetic biology research, RIL is poised to enjoy a share of the profits.

In the midst of economic success, RIL has not forgotten its commitment to enhance the quality of life of people from vulnerable communities. Its philanthropic arm, the Reliance Foundation, was set up in 2010 as a platform for various initiatives. Currently, the foundation focuses on creating change in the areas of rural transformation, health, education, sports for development, disaster response, arts, culture and heritage, and urban renewal. Through programs such as Bharat-India-Jodo, which helps rural farming households that have limited livelihood options, and the Urban Renewal initiative, which improves public spaces, Reliance Foundation has impacted the lives of 20 million people across India in more than 15,500 villages and 100 urban locations.

Synthetic biology is a powerful tool that can open doors to revenue generation, environmental remediation, and social development concurrently – critical for countries like India where the majority of the population stands to benefit directly and immediately from synthetic biology technologies. Investing efforts in synthetic biology is a wise move for companies like RIL that are looking to tap into the biochemical market, be environmentally conscious, and give back to society at the same time.

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Photo: Genetically engineered bacteria which fluoresce in the presence of pollutants may be used as biosensors to detect pollution (Image courtesy of Ryan Kitko on Flickr).

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