Advancing the Future of Industrial Biotechnology: An Interview with Dr. George Guo-Qiang Chen

| By Gizem Bulut

In the ever-evolving realm of industrial biotechnology, the push for more sustainable, efficient, and cost-effective methods has never been more critical. Dr. George Guo-Qiang Chen's recent work leaps toward resolving age-old challenges plaguing the sector. Dr. Chen introduces next-generation industrial biotechnology (NGIB) through a unique combination of microbiology and engineering. This transformative concept may herald a new era in carbon reduction and resource efficiency. 

As global challenges like climate change and resource scarcity loom, industries are under increasing pressure to adopt more sustainable practices. In industrial biotechnology, this demand translates into pursuing economically viable and environmentally benign methods. Herein lies the profound impact of Dr. George Chen's pioneering research. With a background that marries microbiology and engineering, Dr. Chen, director of the Center of Synthetic and Systems Biology and a Professor of the School of Life Sciences at Tsinghua University, is unraveling complex bio-processes to develop next-generation industrial biotechnology (NGIB). This innovative technology tackles age-old bottlenecks—ranging from microbial contamination to energy-intensive sterilization procedures—and emerges as a solution that could potentially revolutionize how we think about bio-industrial processes. But the implications stretch even further: Dr. Chen's work is paving the way for a carbon reduction century, with breakthroughs that may contribute significantly to global sustainability goals. 

One of the intriguing aspects of Dr. Chen's work is his focus on Halomonas species isolated from a Chinese salt lake. These microorganisms can thrive under high osmotic and alkaline conditions, with an optimum pH range of 8-9. "So far, very few microorganisms can match the growth of our Halomonas under these conditions," says Dr. Chen. The result? A contamination-resistant biological process that directly addresses one of the most persistent challenges in industrial biotechnology. 

Traditional sterilization procedures can be expensive, time-consuming, and energy-intensive. Remarkably, Dr. Chen's NGIB technology sidesteps this hurdle. "Sterilizations using high temperature and high-pressure steam consume 30% of the total energy for a common PHA biomaterial production fermentation process," Dr. Chen points out. By harnessing the contamination-resistant capabilities of Halomonas, NGIB allows processes to occur under minor sterile or even non-sterile conditions. This development drastically reduces the complexity of operations and saves energy, making the process more sustainable and efficient. 

Scaling up from lab to industrial bioreactors has challenges, including contamination, oxygen supply, and product formation stability. Dr. Chen's team overcame these obstacles by combining the resilient Halomonas species with bidirectional agitation bioreactors and advanced metabolic engineering techniques. This integrated approach stabilized the product synthesis processes and mitigated contamination risks, thus facilitating successful scaling-up. 

Dr. Chen introduces the notion of a "community of shared future," where essential genes are linked to product formation pathways. "It guarantees the stable product generation as long as the cell is alive," he explains. This genetic and essential binding creates a fail-safe mechanism to prevent unstable production, promising long-term stability in bioproduction operations. 

However, Dr. Chen's work continues beyond efficiency and stability. It also has far-reaching implications for sustainability. "Halomonas-based NGIB reduces energy consumption by employing non-sterile processes," says Dr. Chen. Moreover, the NGIB processes can be operated continuously, improving product yield and bringing bioprocesses closer to chemical processes in terms of efficiency. 

Dr. George Chen's groundbreaking work in NGIB could be a game-changer for the industrial biotechnology sector. By addressing long-standing issues like contamination, energy consumption, and operational efficiency, NGIB has the potential to accelerate the transition to a more sustainable, carbon-reduced future.