The industrial biotechnology sector in the UK is growing. Estimates suggest that the potential size of the UK market could reach between £4 billion to £12 billion by 2025. Modelled on the Biomedical Catalyst, round four of the Industrial Biotechnology Catalyst will open later this week, with an additional £34 million funding available from Innovate UK, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). Earlier this year, BIA member Green Biologics Ltd were awarded an early stage feasibility study grant as part of the competition – read their story below.

Green Biologics Ltd’s (GBL) January 2015 announcement of the successful completion of a fundraising round of $42 million came hard on the heels of the announcement that we had closed on the purchase of our first commercial plant – a Minnesota ethanol plant that will be retrofitted for the production of n-butanol.

Our process is based on an old technology. Solventogenic clostridial strains have been used since the early 1900s, initially for acetone production during the First World War, and then for making n-butanol. GBL has transformed and optimised these processes and generated new strains for the 21st century, enabling us to once again exploit this Acetone Butanol Ethanol (ABE) fermentation pathway. Our goal is to make renewable n-biobutanol sustainably but also cost-competitively with existing petrochemical manufacturing processes. However this is just the beginning for GBL. Solventogenic clostridia are robust industrial workhorses and with the increasing availability of tools for genetic manipulation, coupled with the rapidly developing field of synthetic biology, they are a promising platform for manufacturing a variety of high-value chemicals. It is with an eye toward this future metabolic expansion that we have been awarded funding through an Innovate UK Industrial Biotechnology Catalyst early stage feasibility study grant. Starting in April 2015 we will seek to demonstrate our proprietary genome engineering tools through the construction of a number of recombinant strains, each designed to demonstrate a new capability; feedstock utilisation, feedstock conversion or new metabolic product synthesis.

It is a challenging task because the synthetic biology ‘standardised parts’ for clostridia are very much a work in progress. Codon optimising and synthesising a gene target is now the easy bit – a number of companies provide this service, and even with the AT rich clostridial genome this is a fairly standard service for us. But as we venture further down the route of inserting new pathways and functionality into the cells, the simplest of questions start to become problematic. How do we regulate gene expression? How do we build functional artificial operons? And how do we make sure non-endogenous proteins are correctly folded and reach their required destination? With our molecular biology strengths these are not insurmountable. Perhaps the key questions therefore are what effect will these new features have on the clostridial physiology? How will the cellular metabolic pathways be affected and what unexpected consequences are we going to encounter? At this stage these are very much unknowns.

GBL also needs to consider responsible innovation. It is important to us that we understand and respond to the risks and potential societal benefits resulting from our research. As our technology matures and work begins on our US butanol plant, we are actively engaged with the local community and this will no doubt be a learning process for us going forward.

Despite the challenges, we are looking forward to starting this project. The need for creative solutions to overcome hurdles is motivating and ultimately success will allow us to showcase the use of these versatile microbes as platform hosts for a whole range of industrial biotech processes. We are ready to reboot this old technology for the greening of the chemical industry in the 21st century.

Round 4 of the Industrial Biotechnology Catalyst opens on 21 May. A webinar briefing for the competition will take place on 28 May.

Full details of all current Innovate UK funding competitions can be found here. A range of funding opportunities are also regularly highlighted and updated on the BIA website – click here for details.