Expert:innen: Rebecca Buller (ZHAW), Fabian Fischer (HES-SO Valais-Wallis), Thomas Schwander (ZHAW)
Biocatalysis is a valuable alternative to conventional chemical synthesis: It can make processes more efficient, more specific and less energy-intensive. Against the backdrop of energy shortages and climate change, it is also a beacon of hope towards achieving greener chemistry and a comprehensive circular economy. To at least some degree, biocatalysis could also help to enable reshoring in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, and to counteract the current supply shortages. Switzerland is predestined to play a pioneering role, thanks to its industrial strengths and good cooperation between industry and academic research.
Picture: National Cancer Institute, Unsplash
In biocatalysis, biologically active components, meaning biocatalysts in the form of enzymes or microorganisms such as bacteria, yeasts or fungi, are used to steer or accelerate chemical reactions. One of its aims is to enable reactions that cannot be carried out on a purely chemical basis, or to increase the efficiency of reactions that already take place. In addition, using biocatalysts makes it possible to replace environmentally harmful reagents and solvents. Biocatalysts are often optimised in the laboratory and customised for industrial applications so that synthesis reactions use fewer resources and become more selective and efficient.
Biocatalysis is already used in the manufacture of agrochemicals, fine chemicals, flavourings and pharmaceuticals, as well as in the food industry. Examples of established economically significant biocatalysed processes include the manufacture of aspartame and vitamin C and the enzymatic cleavage of penicillin G for the manufacture of medicinal penicillin. Recent success stories from Swiss industry include the biocatalytic steps in the production of the aromatic substance ambergris for perfumes (originally obtained from the sperm whale and found on beaches as a rare natural product) and of a medicine for treating patients with heart problems. Due to the high specificity of enzymes, biocatalysis has also established itself in the synthesis of molecules that exist in two mirror-image (chiral) forms with the same composition but different effects, the latter meaning that only one of these forms is desired in the end product. This aspect plays a role in the pharmaceutical industry in particular. Moreover, biocatalysis is a central element of wastewater treatment and the circular economy, as it is used for recycling raw materials like carbon dioxide, plastic, plant waste and textiles. In the future, simpler biocatalysis that is not economically viable today may also become profitable.
Industrial developments are focusing on the enzymatic activation of chemically non-reactive compounds, the modification of natural substances and the targeted construction of chiral molecules. The food and cosmetics industries are also interested in chiral molecules because in some cases, the scent and taste of the two molecular forms are perceived differently. Other applications use microorganisms that contain all the enzymes necessary for the desired synthesis and are constructed and optimised in the laboratory with the aid of synthetic biology. The advantage is obvious: If the desired products can be manufactured in one step, rather than in countless individual chemical reactions as they are today, costs are reduced. This is not only of interest to the chemical and pharmaceutical industries but also, for example, in relation to biogas production and the manufacture of products from carbon waste streams.
For several reasons, biocatalysis is a valuable alternative to conventional chemical synthesis. Biocatalysts are often active in water and at low temperatures. This allows the elimination of chemicals or solvents that might be environmentally harmful and decreases the energy consumption of reactions. In addition, the processes are highly specific, which reduces the effort needed to process and remove unwanted by-products. The majority of biocatalytic processes can be carried out in one-pot reactions: This decreases demands on infrastructure and raw material requirements. Thus, against the backdrop of energy shortages and climate change, biocatalysts are a beacon of hope. They can also help to enable partial reshoring in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries (moving some companies back to Switzerland) and to counteract supply bottlenecks, while simultaneously meeting sustainability requirements imposed on Switzerland as a business location.
For Switzerland, which achieves 50 percent of its export volume with chemical and pharmaceutical products, this technology is a major opportunity to tackle the necessary mentality shift towards environmentally friendlier biotechnology and chemistry. Scientific collaborations between universities and industry ensure knowledge transfer and enable Switzerland to play a pioneering role. For instance, large companies are already successfully using the technology to manufacture high-value products. However, SMEs still lack the financial and technical capacities to fully incorporate biocatalysis into their portfolios. Tailored degree programmes specialising in modern biocatalysis could provide a remedy to the shortage of specialists.
The use of artificial intelligence, as well as cost-effective gene sequencing and synthesis for the optimisation of enzymes, has accelerated development. Nevertheless, biocatalytic processes often still take too long to develop to be able to compete with conventional synthesis in all areas. Automation of infrastructure for biocatalyst development would be desirable going forwards. The possible extension of the Nagoya Protocol to include digital sequence information could mean that open access to bioinformatic data would no longer be guaranteed, thus limiting the use of biocatalysts.
There are hardly any funding programmes devoted to the development of a Swiss bioeconomy that also encompass biocatalysis. In addition, many research activities take place in an academic environment, and are thus heavily dependent on funding and international knowledge exchange. In order to fully exploit the industrial potential of biocatalysis, there is a need for (Swiss) programmes that enable cross-industry funding of biocatalytic technologies at the pre-competitive stage.