Kilde: DTU Kemiteknik

Towards a bio-based society with Novel Microbes

Wednesday 27 Sep 17
by Frederik Appel Olsen


Lene Lange
Guest Professor
DTU Bioengineering


Casper Wilkens
Gæste Assistant Professor
DTU Bioengineering

Job creation and environmental salvation: The Novel Microbes project is showing a way towards a more sustainable bio-production. The key? Finding new enzymes to improve industrial production.

Lene Lange, Professor at the BioEng research centre at DTU Chemical and Biochemical Engineering, is a busy scientist. Carrying a pamphlet on The Bio-based Society, made in collaboration with Jane Lindedam from BioValue SPIR, she has been visiting political decision makers, representatives of relevant industries, and classrooms all around the country (and internationally) to explain why we need to be better at using our biological resources and how we can get there. An important step on the path to a healthy bio-economy has been taken in the BioEng research project Novel Microbes, funded by the Villum Foundation.

In many respects, we are already moving towards what can be characterized as “the bio-based society” with less waste generated by more optimally utilizing what we grow, harvest, produce, and eat; and in development of bio-based alternatives to fossil-based products such as bio-energy or bio-plastics, to name a few examples. But we can, and should, move faster:

“In the Novel Microbes project, we have looked at samples from wastewater treatment sludge and determined what types of enzymes the microorganisms in the sludge are capable of producing” says Lene Lange.

When using biological resources in industry, and in our households, byproducts are made – straw, grass, household waste, sludge, whey, wood chips and bark, and more. Reusing (and upgrading) this surplus of biomass is valuable to us because of the economic advantages and environmental benefits.

Novel Microbes is an example of how to identify new enzymes from environmental samples; enzymes that can be used in industry for making higher value products from industrial byproducts such as bio-fuel, bio-plastic, animal feed, food ingredients, etc.

Lene Lange points to the double aim of taking a closer look at the microorganisms of biological production:

“Not only do we want to know what the microorganisms in this rich and diverse habitat are, we also want to know what they do with respect to production of secreted enzymes. And when we know what they do, we want to use that knowledge to improve industrial bio-processing – and at the same time understand the microorganisms’ roles in nature.”

From cow stomachs to sludge

Postdoc Casper Wilkens is part of the Novel Microbes project at the BioEng research centre. In cooperation with Lene Lange, Peter Kamp Busk and Bo Pilgaard from BioEng as well as Wen-Jing Zhang, Kåre L. Nielsen and Per Halkjær Nielsen from Aalborg University he has published the article ‘Diversity of microbial carbohydrate‑active enzymes in Danish anaerobic digesters fed with wastewater treatment sludge’.

Here, the researchers have found that anerobic digesters – oxygen-free processes in, for instance, waste management – are a good place to look for novel carbohydrate degrading and modifying enzymes that can potentiate ongoing industrial processes and provide basis for production of new, value-added products.

”The interesting thing for us is to find new enzymes and understand how they interact with their substrate. In the Novel Microbes project, we found that 30% of enzymes showed 50% or lower identity to known enzymes which suggests that they have different biochemical and biophysical properties than those already known. We have indeed found this to be true. And right now, we are in the process of finalizing our experiments with some of these novel enzymes,” Casper Wilkens says.

Climate and jobs

By improving the bio-economy, Denmark will contribute to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and maintain our position among the leading countries in the development of technologies for a more sustainable global society. But at the same time, another important societal task is pursued: Job creation.

This seems counterintuitive at first: How can a more sustainable production, sparing the environment, create more, and not less, jobs? The answer is that when applying the new types of bio-economy production – as engineers, biologists, farmers, industrial workers etc. – we actually increase bio-based production but decrease the environmental impact. The bio-economy jobs are of diverse types and many more and different roles are needed in the more sustainable and effective production.

“The yarn I am using for knitting at the moment is made from bamboo and hemp, and newspapers in 2017 are filled with advertisements for soft underwear made from bamboo fibers. These are examples of products traditionally made from cotton, a land, water and pesticide consuming crop. Now, with methods hinted at in Novel Microbes, we may be able to find new enzymes which can enable us to develop new processing methods for fibers substituting for cotton, as well as substituting for fossil-based fibers and materials – creating more efficient, renewable, and sustainable bio-based solutions. Hereby, we also create new jobs in the bio-economy,” says Lene Lange.


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