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While science critics might have consumers believe the words biotechnology, sustainability, environment and industry together make strange bedfellows, the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) shares with manufacturers and consumers information that shows the worlds can commingle.

Brent Erickson, director, industrial and environmental biotechnology, BIO, Washington, D.C., helps educate the public about industrial and environmental biotechnology. He focuses on how scientists use the technologies to understand and handle DNA in ways that save energy, reduce or prevent toxic pollution and maximize renewable materials use.

"When most people think of biotechnology, they think of new wonder drugs or genetically modified corn. But biotech enzymes, for example, promise to help develop new uses for crop by-products that add value to existing crop production," he says. "In the future we may genetically modify plants so they produce both food and a by-product in stems or leaves that can also be harvested. Biotechnology will mean enzymes currently under development will create demand for new energy crops like switch grass."

Industrial biotechnology is defined as the use of biological systems, such as enzymes, to improve industry efficiencies and reduce their environmental impact, says Erickson. Environmental biotechnology uses living organisms for applications that include treating hazardous waste or cleaning up polluted areas.

"We know we cannot continue consuming water and petroleum at the same rate and still produce goods for an expanding world population without negative consequences. Industrial and environmental biotechnology help develop new processes that keep production going while reducing the environmental footprints of those processes," he says.

For example, biotech enzymes may help change the way goods are manufactured and meat is produced and processed. Bio-based products, such as green plastics made from corn, may cut resource use and waste generation, and bioenergy may reduce global warming gases and petroleum consumption.

"We've just begun to tap the potential for creating industrial enzymes that can perform effectively and help clean and maintain the environment," he says. "Companies including Genencor, Dupont, Novozymes, Diversa, Dow and Maxygen, have enzymes in development stages that could change the way goods are manufactured."

For example, Erickson says the enzyme phytase is added to animal feed to change phosphorous metabolism. Phytase helps with digestion and prevents ground and surface water contamination by reducing phosphorous content in manure. Another example is development of cellulase enzymes to break down cellulose into starches that can be fermented into sugars and made into ethanol and other products.

"Biotechnology holds great promise for producing ethanol and other chemicals from ag waste products," says Erickson. "Biotech companies are using the same genomic technologies that help medical companies discover new cures for diseases, and they are finding new enzymes that will enable them to convert cellulosic biomass into value-added products. Development of such enzymes means the nation's breadbasket could become the energy fields of tomorrow."

Erickson explains that increased bioenergy use not only leads to less petroleum use, it lowers greenhouse gas and toxic air emissions and cuts down on oil spills and problems with drinking and ground water contamination.

"Bioenergy production would require a high number of green biorefineries' to be built around the country to refine the biomass being processed. Such biorefineries could help create jobs and economic activity in rural areas," he says. "Ten years from now biotechnology will be used in every aspect of production and manufacturing."

Companies are just beginning to commercialize such biotech products, including "green plastics" known as biopolymers. Dupont is working on a new polymer called Serona that is partially derived from ag products. Another example is the newly developed process from Cargill Dow LLC to make polylactide (PLA) from corn -- a family of polymers derived entirely from annual resources that is cost and performance competitive with traditional packaging materials and fibers. Cargill Dow LLC will begin producing 300 million pounds of PLA later this year at its new plant under construction near Blair, Neb.

"Industrial and environmental biotechnology will provide the means to move us toward a cleaner environment, and innovative tools provided by biotech will be needed to feed the world, treat disease and provide a new, cleaner future," sums Erickson.

Barb Baylor Anderson is a freelance writer from Edwardsville, Ill, who covers a wide variety of ag issues.
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Title Annotation:industrial and environmental biotechnology
Comment:BIO FOSTERS BIOTECH LINK WITH INDUSTRY, ENVIRONMENT.(industrial and environmental biotechnology)
Author:Andersen, Barb Baylor
Publication:Agri Marketing
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2001
Next Article:Agriculture Future of America (AFA).

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