Can engineering biology feed more people with fewer resources?
One way this can be achieved is through what is known as engineering biology. It combines the fields of biology and engineering to create safer, more sustainable, and in time, potentially cheaper products. These include feed ingredients, agricultural chemicals and even biofuels.
Last year we released a Synthetic Biology Roadmap that estimated products made using engineering biology could generate more than $19.2 billion for Australia’s food and agricultural industry by 2040.
While there has been a lot of research in this space over the past two decades, commercialisation opportunities are still in their infancy. But understanding what these are can help the sector prioritise their efforts in the short to medium term.
To feed everyone on the planet, we need to revolutionise agriculture in the next 30 years.
Greg Williams is Associate Director for Health and Biosecurity in the CSIRO Futures team, CSIRO’s strategic consulting arm. He says engineering biology can help us address the increasing pressures that global agriculture producers face.
“Engineering biology solutions are one way we can help keep our food systems resilient to future demand. However, we still have a lot to learn to move the science out of the lab and onto farms for real-world impact,” he says.
Engineering biology opportunities on farm
We recently explored eight key engineering biology opportunities for the agriculture industry as part of research funded by AgriFutures Australia, who invest in research, innovation and learning across Australian rural industries.
“We explored both research and commercial applications of this technology globally to assess what Australia’s agriculture and aquaculture sectors could start to prepare for,” Greg says.
“The applications range from biosensors that detect pathogens in livestock or disease in crops, to biomanufacturing sustainable proteins and additives that can be added to animal feed, to creating agricultural chemicals, such as insecticides or fertilisers.”
One of these opportunities involves engineering biological agricultural treatments to create new crops that can fix their own nitrogen for growth. In doing so, this helps to overcome environmental challenges in conventional agricultural practices, such as the overuse of nitrogen fertiliser.
On the Sunshine Coast, we have also supported a local company, Provectus Algae through the Australian Government’s Innovation Connections program to synthetically produce algae for several applications, including food and beverage (natural and sustainable food flavourings, fragrances and colourings), aquaculture feed, natural pesticides and also therapeutics (such as medicines).
A biofungicide for canola crops
Sclerotinia is a common fungal disease of plants. It causes outbreaks of stem rot in canola crops, resulting in yield losses.
CSIRO researcher Louise Thatcher says a collaboration with Melbourne-based business Nufarm is helping to develop and run a pre-commercial pilot trial of a novel biofungicide to prevent sclerotinia outbreaks.
“Fungal diseases of crops cause billions of dollars of losses globally,” Louise says.
“Part of what I do at CSIRO is to find alternative solutions to the use of synthetic agrichemicals. These chemicals contribute to increased yields but can have negative impacts on the environment.
“We’re screening and researching a collection of beneficial microbes that could kill fungal diseases that affect crops such as canola.
“A product from this research would be engineered to maximise effectiveness against sclerotinia whilst minimising off target effects to the environment and people.
“We were able to successfully isolate a new biocontrol microbe that is found naturally in West Australia soils. We engineered a new biofungicide formulation and tested its application to treat sclerotinia outbreaks, with very positive results to far.”
Read more about engineering biology solutions in agriculture.
September 30, 2022 at 10:40 am
Great to hear. I am 86 years old and did my honor’s course at WA Uni in Sclerotinia sclerotiorum to clarify the life cycle in WA with the Dept of Ag. I still have some of the sclerotia from that time! Ruth M Kerruish (Nee Ruth M. Henderson). I wish you the best of luck.
September 30, 2022 at 7:14 pm
Well yes, in the short term all these measures be useful to some part of ‘mankind’ and gain social credibility for their operators. But in answering a silo’ed question like this we’re missing the bigger picture, the elephant in the room. That is, there are too many people wanting to use the world’s resources. And as soon as some new source is found, or some (usually more damaging) way to convert something else into a resource, we get yet more people in the world to consume it.
Simple algebra tells us that however we manipulate resources, we will eventually run out, unless we stop breeding. As a species, we are not only the worst invasive species that has ever existed, but we are also the one that will string out our survival the longest, at the greatest expense to everything else and ourselves, and come down with the biggest crash.