Think: Biobased solutions
Building a sustainable future and economy with nature-imagined solutions is driving collaborations across unlikely industry platforms and creating partnerships that are innovative — and future-focused.
BY: TANYA O’NEIL
From the cosmetics industry to the medical field to agriculture to energy production, the growing and evolving bioeconomy touches a wide variety of industries set on providing biobased products and solutions for today’s world.
And by 2017, USDA-Nexant Renewable Chemicals Market Assessment projections indicate that the growing opportunities through biobased products will amount to $775 million of value added per year for renewable chemicals with capital investment of $2.4 billion. By 2022, the value added potential is estimated at $3 billion per year with $6 billion capital.
“Materials used to be manufactured solely by nature, and we took what we were given — hide, silk, wood, bone and stone. Eventually, people learned to fire slurried sand into pots and hammer iron from the Earth. Throughout history, our progress as a people has been date-stamped by the types of materials we used — the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, the Plastic Age, and now, some would say, the Age of Silicon,” says co-founder of the Biomimicry Institute Janine Benyus in her book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. “With each epoch of civilization, we seem to have distanced ourselves further from life-derived materials and from the lessons they teach us.”
Treating disease, creating new materials for cosmetics and developing cleaner technologies are just a few of the ways a better understanding of plants — and what they are capable of — is leading
researchers to provide solutions to everyday needs.
Research is expected to provide health benefits for many battling cardiovascular disease, cancer and even Alzheimer’s disease thanks to a team of researchers collaborating from the BioDiscovery Institute at the University of North Texas.
UNT biology faculty researchers Chenggang Liu, Xiaoqiang Wang, Vladimir Shulaev and Richard Dixon, director of UNT’s BioDiscovery Institute, were recently included in Nature Plants highlighting their major discovery.
Many people know that tannins in plants have health benefits and impact the taste of fruits and drinks like tea and wine. But it’s not been understood how plants actually put them together — until now.
“This is one of the most exciting discoveries of my career,” says Dixon, a world-renowned specialist in plant biochemistry and Distinguished Research Professor of biology at UNT. “I’ve worked for 35 years on how plants make natural products, and now, we’ve answered a question that has been bothering people for years.”
“I’ve worked for 35 years on how plants make natural products, and now, we’ve answered a question that has been bothering people for many years.”
— Richard Dixon
Director of UNT’s BioDiscovery Institute (BDI)
UNT researchers studied the gene leucoanthocyanidin reductase, or LAR. It was previously thought that LAR only helped make the building blocks of tannins, but the UNT research team learned instead that the gene plays an unexpected role in determining how the building blocks of tannins multiply to form long chains. When those building blocks, called epicatechin, are linked in longer chains, they become insoluble, and lose astringency. However, smaller, more soluble tannins can offer humans more health benefits. Understanding how this process works has major scientific implications.
“This is one of the biggest breakthroughs ever in tannin research,” Dixon says. “We can now work to improve the taste and astringency of many fruits and beverages. This technology can even help with a major source of pollution — methane production from cattle. And tannins have been associated with reduced risks of cardiovascular disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, and we now can use this information to try to boost those health benefits.”
According to a report by BIO, the world’s largest biotechnology industry association, industrial biotechnology companies are pursuing renewable chemicals and biobased materials because they can be commercialized at production manufacturing scale and at low volumes.
Dixon says, “The findings and work we’ve done for health applications crosses over to discovery and development of food and beverage enhancements, as well as supporting engineering of tannins as biobased products to improve the quality of forages and thereby reduce global methane emissions.”
Biobased products also provide environmental benefits, stable costs and novel properties in comparison to fossil fuel-derived chemicals.
“The biobased economy is alive and well; it is not just about biofuels development,” says Brent Erickson, executive vice president of BIO’s Industrial & Environmental Section. “BIO’s new report released on renewable chemical biorefineries illustrates the range of technologies currently undergoing commercialization in the industrial biotechnology space. Analysts predict rapid expansion of renewable chemical sales based on existing and planned production capacity.”