Bio-Reengineering the Economy

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Bio-Reengineering the Economy

For millennia, humanity has harnessed the power of microbes to perform economically vital work. For instance, the manufacturing of such products as bread, cheese, pickles, wine, and beer relies on microbes.

But it's only in the last century that microbiology has become a formal scientific discipline through which the identities, capabilities, and cultivation requirements of many different microbes have been codified.

Until recently, in-depth study of microbes was confined to those species that could be grown in the laboratory. Lately, however, scientists' understanding of the microbial world has exploded.

Specifically, a scientific approach known as meta-genomics, which is the ability to extract and sequence DNA from environmental samples, has provided evidence that microbes are far more diverse and ubiquitous than laboratory studies previously suggested.

For instance, researchers have discovered microbial capabilities that enable them to thrive in extreme environments, including:

  • Thermal hot springs
  • The upper atmosphere
  • Severely polluted soil and water
  • Permafrost
  • Deserts
  • Highly acidic mine drainage

These microbes have the capacity to liberate energy from virtually any chemical bond, and to break down almost all natural or man-made chemical compounds. Microbes are also masters of chemical synthesis, capable of complicated, multi-step synthetic processes.

These spectacular capacities of microbes make them a nearly infinite resource for industrial applications. If there is a chemical that you want to break down, there is probably a microbe that can do it. If there is a compound you wish to synthesize, a microbe can probably help. Microbes are already used to break down plant waste, produce pharmaceuticals, and detoxify sewage.1

Not only have researchers found microbes throughout the environment, they've also found that microbes inhabit every multi-cellular organism—often providing essential services for their hosts. As a result, another rapidly advancing area of microbiology is host-microbe interactions.

Why? Because it is becoming increasingly clear that all plants and animals are dependent on intimate, natural partnerships with microbes. As these relationships become better understood, agricultural and medical applications will become possible.

For example, microbes can be used to enhance crop productivity, improve livestock health, and even prevent or cure human diseases.

But it's not just the formidable biochemical talents found naturally in microbes that make them so important to industry...

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