What did biotechnology ever do for us?

Words by Professor Rob Field

Illustration by Jane Naylor

In looking to a greener and healthier future, what we can take from our past? Professor Rob Field, Director of the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology (MIB), explains the lineage from our oldest innovations to those that will shape our future.

We have a rich history of discovering alternative uses for the things around us; the extraction of aspirin from tree bark dates back several thousand years – a process that might these days be considered industrial biotechnology. Similarly, the act of fermentation has supported beer production and food preservation around the globe for millennia – historic biotechnology.

Yet here we are in the 21st century, looking to find ways to extract useful compounds from renewable plant-based feedstocks; or turning to the fermentation of microorganisms as a means of generating designer medicines.

What can history teach us?

Conventional microbiology in the first half of the 20th century was instrumental in making penicillin a go-to antibiotic, accessible and affordable for all. The drive for commercial and medical advantage sent scientists looking for new organisms producing variants of penicillin, leading to the cephalosporins, which are insensitive to the biological processes of resistance to penicillin. These were slow developments, compounded by the rapid onset of drug failures that required a step-change in productivity.

The molecular biology revolution of the 1970s and 80s enabled us to manipulate the genetic material of plants and bacteria, generating poppies that produce higher yields of therapeutic opium, or antimalarial artemisinin; and bacteria capable of producing spectacular yields of antibiotics and anticancer agents that would only occur naturally in vanishingly low quantities. The opportunity to harness these machineries to produce new-tonature bioactive compounds is rapidly coming on to the horizon in a ‘synthetic biology’ era.

The MIB is at the forefront of discoveries in this science and the technology developments to harness and industrialise them. The Institute was awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize in recognition of its work.

These developments will provide new generations of molecules never before found in nature, as well as the processes for rolling out, at scale, potential drug leads for clinical evaluation, and clean, sustainable methods based on synthetic biology approaches.

This can already be seen in the work that the MIB has done around COVID-19. For example, Professor Perdita Barran, Director of the Michael Barber Centre for Collaborative Mass Spectrometry, has been helping to detail the prognosis for COVID-19 infection in patients.

And spin-out company Iceni is leading the way in a diagnostic test that is quicker to administer and can accurately distinguish between COVID-19 and the flu. The technology could be adapted for other diseases in the future, changing the diagnostic landscape.

One of the challenges is scaling up manufacturing and transforming a chemicals industry that has been heavily locked into oil-based feedstocks and chemical processes that are not always good for the environment.

Through the MIB’s Future Biomanufacturing Research Hub in Manchester, we’ll be exemplifying how bio-based processes that exploit nature’s machinery have both the flexibility and scalability to generate large quantities of new molecules of value to industry and society.

The future is bright, green and clean. And it’s all thanks to underpinning ideas and technologies that date back centuries.

Professor Rob Field

Director of the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology

Industrial biotechnology is one of the University’s research beacons

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