The Role of Bioengineering in Sustainable Food Supply Chain

Every year, the production of food around the world accounts for almost a third of all global emissions of greenhouse gases. Deforestation, grazing livestock, and the use of fertilizers all contribute to climate change. Finding ways to minimize the damage that food production causes is becoming a priority in the fight against global warming. In addition, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization has estimated that every year, the world produces enough food waste to feed 2 billion people.

To address these problems, the field of bioengineering has found ways to recycle scrap food, reduce the amount thrown away, and find alternative ways to produce sufficient food to feed the world more sustainably and with less waste.


Engineering Sustainable Food

A degree in bioengineering, or a masters in biomedical engineering online, involves the study of a range of scientific fields from computational biology and physiological systems to mechanical engineering and material sciences. This multidisciplinary approach lends itself well to improving the sustainability of food production. For many years, the genetic engineering of plants has created the potential of increasing production in a sustainable and environmentally-friendly way, and more recently, progress has been made in creating synthetic meat.

Now, without the use of genetic engineering, biomedical engineers have created the first bioprinted steak from cattle cells. The qualities of real meat are replicated by allowing living cells to grow and interact in the same way as they would in nature. The result is the creation of an authentic-tasting steak produced without the extensive environmental damage caused by farming livestock.

Converting Food Into Fuel

Every year in the US alone, 80 billion pounds of food is thrown away without being eaten. An increasing number of scientific projects are working on harnessing the valuable energy from food waste and converting it into renewable fuel. This can then be used to power a range of vehicles from privately owned cars to planes and trains.

In communities where food waste is collected along with other recyclable materials, anaerobic digestion can also be used to convert the high fat content of food waste into green electricity, which is put back into the grid to power households.


Reducing Food Waste

Some food scraps are unavoidable, but now bioengineering is being applied to reduce some of the waste from over consumerism. Shoppers often buy excess food and leave fresh fruit and vegetables to go mouldy before they are eaten. Using plant derived-technology, the protective peels of fruit and vegetables can now be enhanced, allowing them to stay fresh for triple the amount of time of regularly grown produce. As the freshness of the products is protected for longer, the logistical costs of a strictly controlled refrigerated supply chain are reduced, and in the long-term, food waste is minimized.

As it exists at the moment, the food supply chain is environmentally damaging. From growing meat in a lab to extending the lifespan of fresh food, bioengineers are now finding ways to improve sustainability in food production.

Synthetic Biology – A Catalyst to Revolutionize Biogas Industry

Essentially a process operating by living organisms, the biogas industry is a natural target for synthetic biology. Synthetic biology combines biology and engineering to design and construct biological devices. Contrary to traditional genetic engineering that only alters an already existing DNA sequence, synthetic biology allows us to build entirely new sequences of DNA and put them to work in cells. This allows us to build novel biological devices that would never exist in nature.


Constructions and operations of devices that do not exist in nature, such as tools, vehicles, computers and the internet, have crafted modern civilization. Now, it is synthetic biology that is challenging nature’s limitations and advancing civilization to a higher level.

Generating biogas via anaerobic digestion of biomass and organic waste is one of the few proven, cost-effective, scalable biomass energy strategies. Biogas consists of mainly methane and carbon dioxide, and combustion of methane with air generates energy which can be used for many purposes such as cooking, heating, producing electricity and vehicle fuel. As a result, countless biogas plants are operating around the globe helping to clean up waste and generate energy. With more plants being built, they come in all sizes ranging from household to factory scales.

Anaerobic digestion is a process where extremely complex microbial communities degrade organic matter, such as sugars, fats and proteins, resulting in biogas as the primary end-product. Such inherent complexity makes this process very difficult to optimize. Mechanical engineers have made tremendous progress to optimize this process, but in many places it still requires government subsidies to be profitable.

Synthetic Biology and Biogas Industry

Essentially a process operating by living organisms, the biogas industry is a natural target for synthetic biology. In terms of their genetic content, organisms are classified into three natural groups, Archaea, Bacteria and Eukarya. Most microbes are Archaea and Bacteria, while humans are Eukarya.

In an anaerobic digester, many different types of Bacteria convert the complex organic matter in waste or biomass to hydrogen gas, carbon dioxide, formate and acetate. A unique group of methanogenic Archaea then produces the invaluable part of biogas, methane, by eating hydrogen and carbon dioxide, formate or acetate.

One can imagine creating a super microbe to convert the complex organic matter directly into biogas, thus making anaerobic digestion faster, more efficient and easier-to-manipulate. Making a synthetic microbial community by reprogramming key microbes may also help them work together when a tough job (i.e., eating extremely complex waste) needs to be done.

Among numerous microbes in anaerobic digester, methanogenic Archaea are one of a few microbial groups that have been extensively studied, and a number of genetic tools are available for engineering via synthetic biology. Therefore, scientists have begun to reprogram methanogenic archaea, allowing them to eat organic matter such as sugars and directly produce methane. If they succeed, they may engineer a super microbe that never existed in nature and revolutionize the biogas industry by making anaerobic digestion much simpler and more efficient.

There is also the possibility of more applications downstream. For instance, upgrading biogas by removal of carbon dioxide improves its combustibility. A super microbe could be made to upgrade biogas using hydrogen gas or even electricity to form more methane from carbon dioxide.

Conceptualized super cell that converts idealized organic matter (2CH2O) directly into biogas.

Grand Challenges

However promising, grand challenges remain when it comes to the use of synthetic biology in biogas industry. About 10,000 moving parts are needed to make an automobile, millions of parts for an airplane, and all the parts are standardized.

Similar to those engineering sectors, synthetic biology also needs many standardized genetic parts and modules to be able to create biological devices that can really revolutionize an industry. Sophisticated genetic tools are needed as well to assemble these parts and put them to work. However, few such parts, modules and tools are at disposal for engineering microbes in an anaerobic digester.

Take methanogenic Archaea for example, only three parts are available in the iGEM registry, the world largest collection of biological parts for synthetic biology. Another challenge is an apparent neglect of synthetic biology by the biogas industry. Symposiums bringing professionals from biogas industry and synthetic biology together for discussions are rare, as are major investments for promoting synthetic biology.

As a result, few research groups are developing synthetic tools and parts for the biogas industry. For example, the aforementioned three iGEM parts were all contributed by only one group, the UGA-iGEM team at the University of Georgia.

Future Perspectives

Synthetic biology is developing faster than ever, and its cost continues to fall. Thanks to prompt actions of many industrial pioneers in embracing and supporting synthetic biology, it is already starting to revolutionize a few fields.

Synthetic biology holds great potentials to revolutionize the biogas industry. To achieve this goal, joint efforts between the biogas industry and academia must be made. The former side needs to understand what synthetic biology can achieve, while the latter side should identify which parts of the process in the biogas industry can be re-designed and optimized by synthetic biology.

Once the two sides start to work together, novel synthetic parts and tools are bound to be invented, and they will make anaerobic digestion a better process for the biogas industry.