Biotechnology

Innovation is crucial to fulfil the potential of industrial biotechnology for sustainable production of fuels, chemicals, materials, food and feed. Similarly, scientific and technological advances in environmental biotechnology are needed to enable novel approaches to water purification, and ‘waste-to-product’ processes thus contributing to a circular economy. Increased fundamental knowledge encompassing enzymes, microorganisms and processes are essential for progress in this field. The Department of Biotechnology covers this research area and, based on new insights, selects, designs and tests new biobased catalysts, micro-organisms, and processes.

The department encompasses five research sections:

News

09 November 2023

Are Sustainability and Safety Incompatible?

In the world of biotechnology, safety and sustainability might sometimes be at odds. When conflicts arise, decision-makers must carefully weigh the trade-offs, addressing potential risks and ethical concerns in order to make informed choices. According to two TU Delft professors, safety and sustainability need to go hand in hand to ensure that biotechnological processes and products are developed and managed responsibly. text Heather Montague Risks and responsibilities With the rise of the circular economy, finding ways to use waste for other purposes has become a hot topic. But there are risks involved, says Lotte Asveld , Associate Professor of Ethics & Biotechnology at TU Delft. “People have high standards when it comes to using wastes as resources. Anything that comes out of the sewer doesn’t feel very comfortable to have in your house.” In that sense, she sees a clash between sustainability and safety but also believes they should be combined. “We can’t make everything 100% safe, but we should look towards what risks people find acceptable.” Societal acceptance of using waste as a resource requires that regulations and responsibilities be well aligned. We also need to reevaluate the way we learn about risks, according to Asveld. She notes that biotechnology is strictly regulated, but in the chemical industry, companies themselves are responsible for learning about and identifying risks. “As new risky substances keep emerging, what needs to happen in the innovation ecosystem to make sure that these responsibilities have a place?” Learning about these risks is not always an inherent part of a company’s structure and that needs to change. “My objective is to make sure that safety is something that we talk about, that we don’t take for granted, that we discuss amongst each other; what does it mean, how can we achieve it, and how do we see our responsibility to society and achieving safety?” The future is green The term ‘green chemistry’ was introduced some thirty years ago, according to Ulf Hanefeld , Professor of Biotechnology at TU Delft’s Faculty of Applied Sciences. The aim is to enable society to make what is currently made, or alternatives, in a sustainable and safe manner. “So how can I make the compounds that we as a society think we need in a sustainable manner, starting from readily available materials, performing reactions that are inherently safe,” says Hanefeld. “For me, safety and sustainability go hand in hand.” There are advantages and opportunities that come along with green chemistry. If you take all the starting materials, make only products out of it and don’t generate any waste, that results in higher profit. And there is also an opportunity to develop a new chemistry. “Consider that our current chemistry always starts from petrochemicals, which are very low in terms of functionality,” Hanefeld explains. “If you use sustainable materials like sugars or lignin or plant waste, that is always highly functionalised. Because we have a new type of starter material, we’re doing it all new, and it is a chance to develop it safe from the start. Download article Download article

News

30 April 2020

Investment of 14 million for better use of micro-organisms

Microorganisms can perform many processes useful to mankind, such as converting milk to cheese, keeping human and animal intestines healthy, and cleaning our water and environment. Together with Wageningen University & Research and Delft University of Technology, the Dutch Research Council (NWO) will invest almost 25 million euros in a research facility for investigating mixed microbial communities and their application. The research facility – called UNLOCK (UNLOCKing Microbial Diversity for Society) - consists of equipment and human resources that will be used to gather knowledge on micro-organisms effectively. Team-players Micro-organisms are natural team-players. They are essential for human health via the intestinal microbiome, and for processes like waste water treatment, soil fertilization for plant growth, and food preparation such as cheese or beer through fermentation. However, even though natural and man-made ecosystems are characterized by an enormous microbial diversity, research on microbial communities and their application in biotechnological processes historically has been conducted with a very limited number of strains isolated from these ecosystems. We are currently using no more than 1 per cent of the microbiological potential available in nature Ecosystem Besides that, research on micro-organisms usually focuses on a limited number of specific strains of organisms, while in nature micro-organisms always operate in ecosystems consisting of different species. ‘You could compare it to building a house’, says Robbert Kleerebezem, who is the Delft scientist involved in the project. ‘To build one, you need different experts, like masons, roofers, electricians and plumbers. You can pick out any one of them, and study what they are doing, but that won’t tell you anything about what the resulting house will look like.’ Eagerly awaited Wageningen and Delft have launched the new research facility UNLOCK to study mixed microbial cultures extensively. Various sub-areas of research will be integrated through UNLOCK. This development has been eagerly awaited by researchers studying mixed microbial communities. This integration will make significant scientific and societal breakthroughs possible. NWO's approval will make a 14.5 million euro funding available for the next decade, of which a third will go to TU Delft. Automated cultivation of ecosystems "In Delft we will be working on making automated systems in which we can cultivate ecosystems of micro-organisms in mixed compositions, and monitor them’, says Kleerebezem. ‘This makes UNLOCK a unique facility, because we will be able to do comparative studies on a large scale and in an efficient manner, in order to gain important insights into the interactions between micro-organisms’. New persepectives A total of 24.8 million euros will be invested in UNLOCK. Lead petitioner, Prof. Hauke Smidt is delighted with the approval. ‘This is fantastic. UNLOCK opens up entirely new perspectives for the discovery of new micro-organisms and ground-breaking research on mixed microbial communities’. UNLOCKing Microbial Diversity for Society In UNLOCK, Wageningen and Delft have joined forces towards full integration of all relevant fields of expertise in four complementary platforms: · The Biodiscovery platform (WUR-Microbiology) allows its users to discover and characterize new micro-organisms. In addition, there is a processing unit that allows for fully automated unlocking of biological samples for biomolecular analysis. · The Modular bioreactor platform (WUR-Environmental Technology) facilitates research for sustainable solutions to environmental issues, such as the degradation of (micro) pollutants, sustainable energy generation and reclaiming resources from complex waste streams. · With the Parallel Bioreactor platform (TU Delft -Biotechnology), users can simultaneously conduct dozens of experiments in bioreactors for comparative analysis on how process variables affect system development. · The FAIR data platform (WUR-Systems & Synthetic Biology) takes care of the storage, processing and interpretation of large quantities of data flowing from the experimental systems in a cloud-based infrastructure based on the FAIR principles (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Reusable). Large-scale Scientific Infrastructure NWO has allocated a total of 93 million euros to seven projects. The Ministry of Culture and Education makes funds available to NWO for the National Roadmap for a Large-scale Scientific Infrastructure. These funds enable the building and overhaul of essential research infrastructures. The awarded scientific infrastructures are of critical importance to innovative scientific research, and as a stimulus for economic and societal innovations across all scientific disciplines. Robbert Kleerebezem +31 15 2781091 r.kleerebezem@tudelft.nl