Microorganisms as technology drivers

Degrading plastic with microbial enzymes

An article by Professor Wolfgang Streit, Universität Hamburg

Microorganisms are often responsible for the development of new technologies. One of the most spectacular technological advances of recent years was the discovery of the CRISPR-Cas system in 20151. CRISPR-Cas is a bacterial system that allows the genome of plants, animals and indeed humans to be edited. The groundbreaking discovery and evolution of this technology is comparable to the development of the first cloning vectors in 19722. These fundamentally changed the life sciences, as well as contributing to the creation of many sustainable industrial processes. 

The identification of virus particles is one extremely topical example, and new testing methods are being developed to this end. Naturally, drugs are also being developed to prevent infection or relieve its symptoms. Due to its global impact, the COVID-19 virus is at present one of the strongest drivers of technology. Furthermore, the current pandemic will result in the digitisation of many processes in industry and society.

Emerging technologies and innovations are not always as spectacular as in the above examples. Microorganisms help in the manufacture of very large numbers of products we use in our daily lives. These include many dairy products, as well as microbial enzymes that are used to make baked goods and fruit juices. In laundry detergents they are used among other things to remove dirt. In Germany alone, several billion litres of beer and wine are produced each year with the aid of microbes. Many of the active ingredients found in medicines are microbial in origin. These include not only antibiotics and antitumor agents, but also coagulation factors, insulin and others. Without the constant development and use of the very latest digital fermentation and monitoring technologies, it would hardly be possible to manufacture all of these products in large quantities and high quality. In addition, the microbiological monitoring and quality control of foods, drinking water, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics is an important technological industry. 

It would also not be possible to identify new enzymes, active ingredients and microorganisms for use as probiotics or production strains without cutting-edge technologies and their advancement.

In light of the current climate debate, microorganisms are essential tools and technology drivers if we are to make production ecologically sustainable and carbon-neutral. Developing innovative microbial production processes also requires innovations in the areas of fermentation and biocatalysis.

Thanks to their almost infinite metabolic variety, microorganisms are particularly well-suited to supplying new biocatalysts, and microorganisms can be expected to play a key role in removing CO2 from the atmosphere. Microorganisms will also help us resolve the enormous and extremely pressing problem of global plastic pollution3. Every effort is currently being made in many laboratories around the world to push forward the development of the necessary technologies.

In short, microorganisms can be described as highly efficient and sustainable technology drivers in line with bioeconomic principles.