Back in 1984, Madonna already knew we were ‘living in a material world’, and since then, things have only got worse.
We’re living in a world of mass consumption, where fast fashion, cheap flights and Black Friday-discounted gadgets dominate - and with technology evolving at an overwhelmingly fast rate, we’re seeing everything becoming instantly available and delivered directly to our doors, at the touch of a button. What’s worse is that here in the UK, we are totally detached from the impact of our overconsuming, materialistic lifestyles. Most products are manufactured abroad, and while the environmental impact of that manufacturing may be out of sight and out of mind, its impact on the planet is undiminished.
Our current consumption levels, and those in other affluent nations are unsustainable, and account for an increasingly disproportionate amount of the overall negative environmental impact caused by human activity. Effectively we are overspending our natural capital and are now living in nature’s overdraft. Earth Overshoot Day marks the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year. This day falls on August 2nd meaning we are in deficit for about 5 months. The deficit period is much greater in developed parts of the world.
We know that when people buy less stuff, emissions, resource consumption and pollution drop. But with consumer habits changing too slowly to counteract climate change, what can we do? How can we become more sustainable and create a more circular bioeconomy?
For a step change to happen, and the climate disaster to be slowed, we need a revolution – much like that of the industrial revolution of the 18th century, revolutionising and modernising the world of today. But this time, we need a biobased revolution…one that works with nature, and not against it. One of the key opportunities to drive a more circular bioeconomy is right in front of us, all around us, and even inside us! Enter the BioRevolution, and the wonderful world of microbes.
Microbes are adept at adapting, competing for resources and thriving in the world’s most extreme environments - from desert sands to deep ocean floors. In order to thrive in so many different and often challenging environments, microorganisms behave like little cell factories, breaking down, and metabolising substances in the environment, to produce a variety of new compounds, many of which are useful to the microbes themselves, but also have immense potential to be exploited by mankind.
Bacteria are nature’s superheroes, providing sustainable manufacturing routes to many of the materials and chemicals that have become essential parts of our modern lives.
In 2015, the UN set out 17 Sustainable Development Goals, with interconnecting global objectives, providing a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all” by 2030. Bacteria play a pivotal role in achieving these goals and our culture collection is a fantastic resource for researchers with an interest in using the power if microbes as a force for good.
As we’ve reached the halfway point in the UN’s schedule for achieving its sustainable development goals, I’ve been reflecting on the role microbes play in achieving the outcomes we so desperately need - a few current examples come to mind - microbial biomass is a rich source of protein and microbiologically derived meat substitutes are already on the market. The recent step change in the understanding of gut microbes and their role in health means that that the use of live microbes as biotherapeutics are progressing through the clinic and set to play an increasingly important role in disease prevention and treatment. And as a culture collection that includes many marine species, I am certain that we hold strains that already play a crucial role in ocean sustainability.
Microbes are the key to a truly circular economy
At NCIMB, we believe microbes can provide solutions to most of the UN’s sustainability goals. And, the exciting thing is that we are just the start of this industrial BioRevolution. This is a view shared by Applied Microbiology International, which has a strong focus on using microbes to underpin the sustainability goals, and has established advisory groups based around seven of them.
However, there is still much work to be done, and I urge the UK government to invest more in the discovery and development of our precious biological resources - including maintenance and characterisation of microbial culture collections. With the right support, the development of microbial products could accelerate rapidly, taking advantage of cost reductions in DNA sequencing and DNA synthesis coupled with better gene editing tools. Another area that needs attention is the translation and scale-up of bio-derived industrial products. As this tends to be capital intensive, financial support is required to build flexible pilot facilities.
One lesson from the Covid pandemic is that with urgency and proper financial backing, solutions to global challenges can be found and implemented extremely quickly. We must apply the same attitude to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels, tackle climate change and meet our environmental obligations. It is imperative, we work together to deliver effective microbial solutions for restoring the planets health.
NCIMB is well placed, though our culture collection and the supporting microbiology services to support researchers. We are also keen to work partners to unlock the potential of our diverse microbial culture collection.