Industrial biotechnology - white biotech
Industrial biotechnology is defined as all uses of molecular biology techniques aimed at facilitating industrial processes to produce bioproducts and bioenergy, to reclaim environmentally compromised areas.
The most significant applications to date are the following:
A key role is played by the enzymes, which use is certainly destined to grow, given the absence of harmful effects on the environment. They are mainly used for detergents (proteases and lipases), which allow you to wash at lower temperatures, with significant energy savings and reduced environmental impact. In the food industry are mainly used enzymes as chymosin (as rennet in the processes of milk curdling), lipase (in the degradation of fats), lactase (for the transformation of lactose into its basic components, thus making the milk suitable for consumption even for individuals who are lactose-intolerant).
Bioplastics are plastics derived from biotechnology: the polymers can be directly synthesized from genetically modified organisms, or extracted as such from biomass. Currently, several bioplastics produced from starch, wheat or other grains are already sold. They are organic, and therefore fully biodegradable, with additional benefits such as: shorter decomposition time, reduction in the production of greenhouse gases and carbon dioxide emission at the end of their use, compostable so that they permit obtaining fertilizer from the realized products (biodishes, bioglasses) for use in agriculture. Several companies are also developing a new technology to produce bioplastic from algae, completely biodegradable, which would substantially reduce its dependence on oil in this industrial sector.
Bioenergy is energy produced from biomass, defined as the biodegradable fraction of products, waste and residues from agriculture and from forestry and related industries, as well as the biodegradable fraction of industrial and municipal waste. Depending on the origin and processing method, there are several possible applications: generation of heat and electricity by burning or forest residues and agricultural products (solid biomass), production of vegetable oils for direct combustion and biofuels productions, such as bioethanol and biodiesel (liquid biomass), the generation of electricity by the fermentation products and organic waste (biogas). Even the marine biomass may represent a source of energy. The mantle of ascidians (marine microorganisms) is made from cellulose that can be cleaved to obtain ethanol. For these organisms, there is no competition in the food chain, and they grow very rapidly, being quick-ready for the production of ethanol.
Natural or engineered strains of specific microorganisms have proven to be able to rapidly degrade pollutants lowering the concentration to an acceptable level, in order to allow recovering vast areas of land or water from pollutants such as oil, rubber, paints, electrical insulation, fabrics, heavy metals. Similarly, the techniques of phytoremediation exploit the ability of certain plants to absorb heavy metals and other compounds present in the soil; it is also possible to engineer plant varieties to be ever more efficient “scavengers” of the contaminated environment. Finally, the environmental diagnostics is relevant as well: biotech in fact allows having refined and sensitive diagnostic systems able to detect, in real time, the degree of pollution of the soil or water.
Within the field of biotechnology, numerous are the applications in the agro-food industry and include: production of enzymes and microbial inoculum for the production of foods and beverages (e.g. as a starter for wine making, cheese making and bakery); decrease in dietary and allergenic toxicity (e.g. soybeans with reduced allergenicity); increase of nutritional components (e.g., the “Golden rice” enriched with vitamin A or “protato”, the potato with a high protein content); elimination of anti-nutritional factors (e.g. phytates in cereals or antitrypsin factor in soybeans); food and feed additives (e.g. the “silage” and other fermentation products) obtained by fermentation or other biotechnological processes.
Conservation and restoration
Biotechnology have even been used in the conservation and restoration of art manufacts. Frescoes, sculptures, monuments, very susceptible to deterioration caused by aging of materials and pollution, have been treated with some microogranisms (“restoring bacteria”) degrading the sulfates and nitrates, transforming them into non-toxic dispensable compounds; biocalcifying microrganisms, instead, have been used as consolidating stone. The bio-cleansing has already been successfully applied for the removal of black crusts from a bezel of Milan’s Duomo, the Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona in Rome, for plaster removal from the base of the Pietà Rondanini by Michelangelo and for cleaning polychrome marbles of the Duomo of Florence.
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