Microbial cultures in jumbo service - examples for future industries
Elias Hakalehto, PhD, Adj. Prof.
CEO, Finnoflag Oy
Vice President, International Society of Environmental Indicators
Lifetime Fellow Member, International Society of Development and Sustainability (Japan)
(Published on the 23rd of June 2022)
Freedom of thought and expression is one of the prerequisites for progress. In Athens 2000 years ago, some enjoyed the liberties without worrying about meeting both ends. As a result, the foundations of science, humanities, and philosophy were established.
While searching for novel scientific or industrial innovations, the increasingly small or cellular or molecular or atomic or quantum scale has served as the source of inspiration. Finnish R&D company Picosun Oy is exploring atomic layers in its voyage of discovery. This enterprise was recently sold to the American giant Applied Materials Inc., whose CEO Gary Dickerson stated that Picosun is a pioneer of ALD technologies (Atomic Layer Deposition). Exploiting nanometer-thick membranes for the semiconductors is leading the way to novel solutions in smartphones, computers, medical applications or energy technologies. - It will be fascinating to see molecular miniaturization and information networking energize microbiological applications and bioprocess technologies.
Since the days of Louis Pasteur, microbiology has been regarded as one of the most intriguing fields of science. Besides plants and animals, the invisible micro-organisms profoundly influence our living, food production, industrial processes and environmental sustainability.
Lately, the research on the health effects of the various biological agents has focused on viruses, which are not considered living organisms (as summed up in my previous blog on the 8th of June). Instead, viruses are parasites that always need host organisms to provide them with the biologically regulated metabolic environment for their propagation.
Opposite to viruses, bacterial cells and other cellular micro-organisms are cultivated in appropriate conditions as independent cultures. During the many years of lab tests, bioprocess pilot runs, greenhouse experiments and molecular science in Finnoflag Oy, we have learnt to respect the extraordinary power of molecular communication and the interactions in mixed microbial cultures. This opens up exciting views on the big questions of freedom, duties and responsibility.
In the animal kingdom, these issues are solved instinctively. For example, a lioness will fiercely defend the cubs in any situation. In the African plains, the group of elephants is led by the old matriarch. Her born-in sense of responsibility covers all members of her extended family equally well. This also includes the separated subgroups, even if a river or other obstacle separated them. Then she will seek a solution to reunite the family, especially if any of its members are endangered. The mother elephant has the ultimate freedom of choice as it guides her group toward better grazing grounds or drinking water sources. Her followers come after her without the slightest doubt of her skill and compassion for her duty. And she does not want her freedom to be questioned since this freedom belongs to her purpose.
Singular microbial cells also have natural capabilities for exploiting their unique position in the metabolic network to improve the living conditions of their entire population. In both the cases of bacterial organisms and matriarch elephants, if the genetic or regulatory matrix by the environment allows it, the limited but boundless freedom will flourish. It automatically leads to the optimal outcome for the group's survival and the species as a whole. The individual microscopic cells have the metabolic, structural, motion and attachment capabilities, which will empower their livelihood as well as the common purpose of the population.
We are learning to exploit this simple but challenging principle in biorefinery development. In comparison with human social values, it is like the behind the horizon escaping but a truthfully glittering promise of liberty that provides fundamental niches within the culture. The individuals have the privilege of exercising their inner independent will and strength as long as they promote the concept of common good and ideals. The purpose, if realized, will undoubtedly and undeniably get served by all members and the leaders the most. In the case of our human societies, the "cultural factor" will at best promote the purpose. However, suppose the freedom to make the right choices is not used or is exploited for a selfish or segregative set of goals. In that case, this will eventually lead to the degeneration of society and its values and prospects. In human societies, we should take an example of the entirety of the individual and common purpose. This is seen in the microbial world to the extent it could even get utilized in industrial applications. And make them victorious ones.
Our "ecosystem engineering" approach has exploited Finnoflag experience with mixed cultures. For the five previous years, we have extensively tested the revolutionary principles in Hiedanranta, Tampere, for piloting the use of cellulose deposits in the environmental sediments. When we think of the process broth as an ecosystem of myriads of living cells and their interactions, it is possible to measure the trends, fluctuations, and outcomes of biorefinery processes in previously unseen manners. This could eventually and quickly lead to continuous improvement and almost unbelievable results and gains in biochemicals, energy substances and soil improvement. These could all make the process both feasible and sustainable. One example of the results of the Finnoflag team was presented in my May lecture during the EGU22 (European Geosciences Union) General Assembly, "Record level productivity of lactate from a century-old cellulosic deposit on the lake bottom in Tampere, Finland". - This record yield reached 14.7% in the process broth. Other chemicals were also produced.
The Tampere project and numerous other biotechnology applications and ideas have been presented in the book chapters of "Microbiology of Food Quality. Challenges in Food Production and Distribution During and After the Pandemics" (Edited by Elias Hakalehto) published in December 2021 by the oldest publishing house in Germany, Walter De Gruyter GmbH (Berlin).
In the case of non-aseptic microbiological production lines, please see my article in the pan-European magazine for industrial maintenance, "Maintworld" (Hakalehto, E. 2022) - https://www.maintworld.com/R-D/Modern-Production-Lines-from-Industrial-Side-Streams
In future biorefineries, we could speed up the output of bio-based commodities as the result of the activities of microbial cultures and their enzymes. Similarly to the particle dissociation in quantum physics, according to the modified Heisenberg's uncertainty principle (see the blog 8th of June), we cannot know precisely the yield of chemicals or the propagation speed at the same time. This is due to the complications of molecular biophysics and cellular regulation. Suppose we focus on the gains of biochemical compounds, energy units and growth base for green food. In that case, it is well possible to integrate AI (Artificial Intelligence) into the optimization and enhancement work. Such project planning has been ongoing between Finnoflag and Professor Erik Dahlquist of the Mälardalen University in Sweden. He has been one of the leading experts on AI for process industries in Europe.
Our partner, FimusKraft Oy, was awarded the "Seal of Excellence" by the European Innovations Committee. The EU is funding the implementation of the leading technology in the future market. Finnoflag Oy and the undersigned are the key technology providers in these endeavours. These projects were introduced together with the Finnish Kauppalehti magazine on the 17th of June 2022.
In the various ongoing, past and future projects, we have the opportunity and window for the development of the field of biorefineries and microbial biotechnologies. As a postgrad student at the University College of London, the author could some 40 years ago see the emergence of process bioengineering in such applications as enzymes and antibiotics. Now we could implement novel principles obtained from the extensive research and piloting studies into the future applications for providing novel sources of food and feed, medical substances, materials and polymers, as well as climate-friendly chemicals and energy with the aid of micro-organisms. In addition, the unique techniques for ecosystem engineering, mixed fermentations and molecular biophysics could pave the way for novel sustainable industries worldwide.
This could benefit the Finnish Lakeview suburb, SME companies and their technologies to grow, and the heroic mother elephant in the African savannah to complete her task of guiding her group safely and united to the oasis or the river bank. The beauty of Nature often is found in its purpose and function. There is a voyage of uncomprehensible dimensions ahead of us, but we could make this adventure a collective experience. According to Schrödinger's nuclear physics, any doublet of particles, once simultaneously formed, will continue to influence each other. In the case of our human lives and life on Earth in general, we have a choice. - During the tsunami in Thailand year 2004, the local Asian elephants used for cleaning the ruins had tears in their eyes seeing the devastation. None of them had been caught by the gigantic waves as they escaped before water masses hit the shores. Many people survived as they followed the elephants and the intuition of these sensitive animals to the higher-up locations.