Bioprocessing is a term we don’t often use. When we think of the term “processing” in an industrial setting, we generally picture massive machines creating inanimate objects. In manufacturing, processing can include anything from creating the circuit board that makes your smartphone function to turning raw petroleum products into the thousands of different plastic items that we use every single day.
Industrial factories aren’t the only ones that use processing to create the products we use on a daily basis. That brings us into the realm of bioprocessing. What is it? Where might you see the its products in your daily life, and why is this type of manufacturing so important?
A definition for bioprocessing
First, what is it?
It’s defined as the use of biological materials to carry out various manufacturing processes. That could include everything from enzymes and organelles to full organisms and cells. Each facet of bioprocessing is customized to meet a specific need.
Bioprocessing might sound like a scientifically advanced method that we’ve only discovered in the last few decades. However, it’s actually been around for thousands of years, even if early bioprocessors didn’t have a name for it. If you’ve ever enjoyed a slice of cheese, you’ve enjoyed a byproduct of bioprocessing.
Cheese is made by mixing milk with an enzyme called renin, which is found in calf stomachs. While today you can get rennet for making cheese that isn’t an animal byproduct, for centuries cheesemakers were practicing an early form of bioprocessing. Tanning leather and brewing beer are also early forms of this.
How does bioprocessing work?
Whether you’re using microbes or enzymes, the first step in bioprocessing is to collect the catalyst for your reaction. This process can be done in a number of ways. Microbes, for example, might be grown in a fermenter, while enzymes might be collected in a bioreactor — a piece of equipment that mimics the conditions inside the body.
pH is one of the critical parameters that is monitored to maximize the yield of products generated by a bioreactor. In the human body, the pH of blood is between 7.2 and 7.4 — any higher or lower and it can negatively impact your health. In your stomach, though, the body maintains a pH of 4-5 unless you’re eating something. In that case, it releases acid that drops the pH to between 1 and 2. It’s these little adjustments that can be difficult to replicate in a lab setting, which is where bioreactors come in.
Once the components are collected, they can be used in their various applications. We would have to write a book to detail all of the potential applications of bioprocessing.
Why is bioprocessing so important?
Why is it so important, especially when you consider the fact that modern processing techniques might be more efficient, if not more effective?
For one thing, they’re better for supporting a sustainable future. The majority of bioprocessing products and byproducts are biodegradable, making them better for the environment. They can also be extremely efficient, using a very small amount of an enzyme or microbe to get the desired result. Just look at breadmaking — yeasted bread has been around for thousands of years and it only takes a very small amount of yeast to get a large, fluffy loaf of bread.
While some bioprocessing byproducts can be made with modern chemical processing techniques, others — like wine and cheese — are impossible to make with chemicals alone. They might try to duplicate the process, but it just isn’t the same as the original. Even vegetarian rennet for cheese is made from a naturally occurring enzyme in plants like artichokes and nettles.
The future of bioprocessing
Modern bioprocessing techniques are a major part of Industry 4.0, also known as the 4th Industrial Revolution. You may hear modern techniques referred to as “bioprocessing 4.0.” What does that mean for the future of this very old facet of the manufacturing industry?
Modern technology could prove to be one of the biggest boons of Industry 4.0, at least when it comes to bioprocessing. Machine learning algorithms, paired with rudimentary AI, could help engineers come up with new protein pairs or new microbes virtually, rather than having to test each one individually. This reduces the amount of time spent on failed experiments and allows these engineers to spend more time coming up with new ideas and focusing on the innovative side of their job.
It will also likely be a large part of the future of the pharmaceutical industry going forward. Right now, bioprocessing techniques are too slow to meet demand or get products to market. This can cost the industry anywhere from US$1-13 million a year in lost revenue. Adding new technology to the marketplace will only help this unique manufacturing discipline thrive in the future.
Where can you see bioprocessing right now?
Where has bioprocessing impacted your life? Look around. The wine on your countertop and the cheese in your fridge are both products of this millennia-old process. If you’ve ever used a biological washing powder that uses natural enzymes to break down things like grass or bloodstains, you’ve employed the results of bioprocessing. Even the apple cider in your fridge. If it’s clear rather than cloudy, it’s been mixed with pectinases to break down the pectin in the apples and allow you to enjoy a nice, clear drink.
Bioprocessing has been around longer than we’ve had a name for it. It’s a reminder that even while technology continues to advance, there will still be some things that technology can’t do as well as nature.