Tuesday, 22 August 2017 11:13

Systems biology offers new possibilities in the fight against global environmental problems

Una de las primeras imágenes de La Tierra tomada por humanos. Fotografiada desde el Apollo 8 a 30.000km Una de las primeras imágenes de La Tierra tomada por humanos. Fotografiada desde el Apollo 8 a 30.000km NASA, Gobierno de EEUU, via Wikimedia Commons

A new perspective is needed that assesses pollution problems in all their complexity, as well as possible solutions for effective bioremediation strategies. Systems biology and synthetic biology offer the necessary tools to implement this new approach. This strategy opens the door to the use of microorganisms to reduce global problems such as climate change

Environmental pollution problems often entail very complex situations involving multiple factors. When dealing with these environmental changes using bioremediation techniques –that is, microorganisms or other living beings– it is essential to consider the overall context and to evaluate all possible implications.

This is the view of researchers from the Centro Nacional de Biotecnología of the CSIC (CNB-CSIC) in an article published with scientists from the Czech Republic and Denmark in the journal Biotechnology Advances. In their paper, the authors consider that the bioremediation strategies developed in recent decades have been ineffective because of their reductionist approach.

The rebirth of bioremediation

"We find ourselves in an exciting time. New fields of biology, such as systems biology and synthetic biology, offer us very powerful tools with which we can approach the entire situation, taking into account all its problems and implications. We must reconsider the same environmental pollution challenges from a new perspective. We call it Bioremediation 3.0," explains Victor de Lorenzo, study director and CNB-CSIC scientist.

The researchers say that this new strategy will allow more efficient clean-up of water or soils contaminated by toxic compounds. But it will also minimize climate change and other global alterations brought about by human action. "This approach opens the door to using bacteria to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere or plastics from the oceans," says de Lorenzo.

Biotechnology against climate change

"We no longer speak only of eliminating pollutants or degrading them to less toxic compounds. We can modify microorganisms to convert harmful compounds into others of greater economic and social value," says the researcher.

In their publication, the scientists propose a working method to implement this novel approach. According to the article, the contaminant must first be understood in depth, as well as all the metabolic pathways in which it is involved. Then an appropriate microorganism must be selected and studied thoroughly; finally, an optimal strategy is designed and adapted to the context.

In this study, the scientists also emphasize the need for a change in society’s attitude. "Regulatory constraints when working with genetically modified microorganisms slow down the progress of research. The use of microorganisms to solve these global problems will only become a reality if the population accepts biotechnology as an inseparable part of their daily lives," the authors conclude.



Bioremediation in history

The use of microorganisms to eliminate or degrade toxic compounds began in the 1970s, when it was proposed to take advantage of the natural ability of microorganisms to clean up contaminants of human origin. This is what the authors term Bioremediation 1.0. It soon became clear that there were products of human origin that microorganisms in their natural state were unable to eliminate. The rise of genetic engineering (1980-1990) brought the modification of bacteria to improve their ability to degrade certain toxic compounds, and the emergence of so-called Bioremediation 2.0. Despite some good results, however, this approach brought little success. The authors of this paper call for reconsideration of the situation and a new approach to the field of bioremediation through what they call Bioremediation 3.0.



El efecto multi-escala de los distintos tipos de contaminantes emitidos por las actividades urbanas e industriales puede modelizarse y mitigarse mediante la adopción de las herramientas conceptuales y materiales de la Biología Sistémica (que une a la Biología de Sistemas con la Biología Sintética). / Víctor de Lorenzo, CNB-CSIC

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