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mbindustrialbiotech - F E AT U R E Industrial...

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F E AT U R E NATURE BIOTECHNOLOGY VOLUME 22 NUMBER 6 JUNE 2004 671 Trend-spotters at the European Commission (Brussels), US Department of Energy (DOE; Washington, DC, USA), Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, Paris) and McKinsey & Co. (Frank- furt, Germany) are just a sample of the grow- ing legion of high-profile groups touting something called ‘industrial’ or ‘white’ bio- technology (the application of biotechnology to industrial production). Not so long ago, interest in things such as biodegradable plas- tics and enzyme efficiency was scant and industrial expertise limited primarily to chemical companies, which is why the scope of innovation was narrow and the time frame long. Today, interest in industrial biotechnol- ogy (IB) is coming from a diverse group of researchers and industries, which will help accelerate the pace that scientific knowledge accumulates and broaden the range of com- mercial applications for this science. However, although governments and a small collection of large companies around the world are waking up to the technology, on the whole, industry and investors have still not made the leap necessary to build the kind of momentum needed to upgrade the indus- trial complex. And until they do, this promis- ing but still largely untested brand of biotechnology will remain underdeveloped and underused—its full potential unrealized. The vision The IB vision for the future is based on a rather old scientific curiosity that everything from medicines and fuels to clothing fibers and assorted other industrial raw materials can be made from plants and microorgan- isms. Indeed, ‘made better’, because unlike chemicals and fossil fuels, biologically based industrial ingredients and catalysts are made from infinitely greener, more renewable resources like corn, soybeans and bacteria. ( Fig 1 ). These by-products don’t kill fish, con- taminate soil or foul the air (but see Box 1 ). Just as the chemical industry evolved in the 1940s from a business based on inorganic mineral feedstocks to an organic, petroleum- based platform, chemicals and other heavy industries have reached a new inflection point, one in which petroleum and chemistry will slowly be supplanted by renewable agricultural crops and biotechnology. McKinsey, for one, predicts that this transfor- mation from fossil fuels and chemicals to plant ‘biofactories’ is not just imminent 1 . Rather, it believes that biotech had a hand in the production of at least $50 billion worth of products last year and could by 2010 con- tribute to $160 billion in sales in the chemical industry alone. The ethanol industry is another sector whose future will increasingly rely upon innovations made possible through IB. Royal Dutch/Shell (Rotterdam, The Neth- erlands) and the Canadian company Iogen (Ottawa, ON), are among those building ethanol refineries that rely upon so-called cel- lulosic biomass ( Fig. 2 ). In ten years, experts say, the entire industry will be based on such feedstock.
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