At Norwich Research Park we work collaboratively to understand the mechanisms by which plants and microbes produce new materials and molecules with bioactive qualities. Knowledge which can then be used to increase yields and create products of commercial and societal interest, such as personal care products, functional foods, new antibiotics and alternatives to current pesticides.
Biotechnology can be defined broadly as anything involving the use of living systems and organisms to develop or make products. That could include making things like pharmaceuticals, antibiotics, vaccines and even beer! Industrial biotechnology is biotechnology applied in an industrial setting for sustainable processing and production of chemical products, materials, and fuels. The chemicals required to make these things are often found in very low abundance naturally or in organisms that are normally difficult to cultivate.
The Patron group at the Earlham Institute looks at methods for improving plants specifically for the purpose of biomanufacturing. Plants are relatively cheap and easy to grow and maintain and are capable of producing useful natural products in a just a few days. To improve the plants, the group uses gene-editing techniques like CRISPR to introduce desirable traits. CRISPR is a really useful technique that involves using specific proteins to either cut bits of DNA out of a gene to disable it or make specific changes by cutting bits out and putting other bits back in with different enzymes.
Norwich Research Park is home to lots of businesses and some of those businesses utilise industrial biotechnology to produce products. A great example of a business with a biotech innovation is Colorifix. The products that Colorifix uses living organisms to make are dyes. Conventional dyeing methods use a lot of water, over 20 billion litres for the UK clothing industry alone. The Colorifix process uses 68% less water. DNA sequencing is used to identify the genes required to create a particular pigment colour and then these genes are used to engineer microorganisms to produce these natural pigments.
Another great example of a business on the Park that uses industrial biotech techniques is Leaf Expression Systems. As you can probably guess from the title, they use the leaves of plants to manufacture proteins, which includes things like antibodies and allergens, enzymes, and vaccines.
The business uses a system that was developed at the John Innes Centre by Prof. George Lomonosoff and Dr Frank Sainsbury, called Hypertans, making them what’s known as a spin out business. Conventional production of these types of proteins has previously been done in animal models or plant models more slowly, but the Hypertrans and SupraVec technologies allow Leaf Expression Systems to use plants which are much cheaper, easier to grow and maintain and can produce high yields relatively quickly. The system uses a specific type of bacteria called Agrobacterium to express the proteins within a close relative of tobacco plants called Nicotiana benthamiana.