New funding puts Norwich at the heart of green technologies

18th December 2013

With over £5.5 million of funding over five years, researchers at the Institute of Food Research and the John Innes Centre will help make the UK a world leader in industrial biotechnology. 

Four of 13 new national ‘Networks in Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy’ announced by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) will be co-led by scientists at IFR and JIC on the Norwich Research Park.

“The Norwich Research Park is home to a huge amount of interdisciplinary research that is needed to develop new, greener technologies, but we need support from networks such as these to turn them into reality,” said Professor Keith Waldron. 

Industrial biotechnology offers a more sustainable and ‘green’ future, more efficient manufacturing and a shift away from fossil fuels and petrochemicals towards renewable materials. It has the potential to bring major economic benefits to the UK including the creation of new jobs in the bioeconomy. 

“To produce products on a large scale and in a sustainable way, we need to find alternatives based on our improved understanding of how useful chemical and materials are made in nature,” said Professor Anne Osbourn from the John Innes Centre.

Each network brings together academic scientists, technologists and industrialists from multiple UK institutions and companies, so that emerging discoveries and opportunities in biological science can be translated into innovative industrial outputs as rapidly and effectively as possible. 

Universities and Science Minister David Willetts said: “To get ahead in the global race we need to turn our world-beating science and research into world-beating products and services, as set out in our Industrial Strategy.

“These networks will unlock the huge potential of biotechnology and bioenergy, such as finding innovative ways to use leftover food, and creating chemicals from plant cells.” 

Professor Keith Waldron in the Biorefinery at IFR

Professor Keith Waldron

The Food Processing Waste and By-Products Utilisation Network will use modern scientific approaches combined with emerging biorefining techniques to turn vegetable and fruit trimmings into a range of useful chemicals, including biofuels, biopolymers and pharmaceuticals.

“We think that there is great potential in exploiting these unavoidable food waste streams,” comments Professor Keith Waldron of the Institute of Food Research, who co-leads the network with Professor Dimitris Charalampopoulos from the University of Reading. “We will find practical, efficient ways of helping food manufacturers and retailers to reduce the amount of waste that gets thrown away, as well as providing a boost to the UK economy.”

The High Value Chemicals from Plants Network will promote the industrial application of the vast range of chemicals found in plants. It will harness JIC’s world-class knowledge of how the chemical diversity in plants evolved. New and better plant-derived chemicals will be used in sectors including therapeutic drugs, industrial oils and fats, personal care, nutraceuticals, and fragrance and flavour products.

This network is co-led by Professor Anne Osbourn and Professor Ian Graham from the University of York. Professor Osbourn comments: “We aim to make the UK a leading producer of high value chemicals from plants, by providing the expertise to address the challenges that currently limit this important area of industrial biotechnology.”

The Natural Products Discovery and Bioengineering Network (NPRONET) will accelerate the industrial application of valuable chemicals from microbes. JIC has a long history of contributing to the discovery of therapeutic compounds from the bacterium Streptomyces, the source of half of the antibiotics in use today. The network will develop its potential for further, urgently-required antibiotics and other valuable products including agrochemicals to protect crop yields.

Dr Barrie Wilkinson, the co-leader of the network with Professor Jason Micklefield from The University of Manchester, comments: “The explosion in genome data for microbes is revealing that they produce a vast array of undiscovered chemicals that could provide the next generation of antibiotics or crop protectants. Our increased knowledge paves the way for us to harness this potential.”

The Glycoscience Tools for Biotechnology and Bioenergy (IBCarb) network will build on recent advances in knowledge about the synthesis and properties of carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are the most abundant natural biological materials on earth. They are found in all organisms and are the major constituents of plants.  Better exploitation of this resource in industry will be key to reducing dependency on petrochemicals and enabling the UK to meet vital targets for reducing emission of greenhouse gases.

Network Co-leader Rob Field envisages that a multidisciplinary approach will be required to achieve these goals: “Innovative exploitation of carbohydrates for biotechnology will depend on informatics, analytical tools, metabolic engineering and chemistry. Our network will bring experts in all of these areas together.”

Dr Celia Caulcott, BBSRC Executive Director, Innovation and Skills, said: “These networks bring together a number of internationally competitive, cross-disciplinary communities capable of undertaking innovative research that will attract further investment from the UK and abroad.

“They provide a new opportunity for the research community to make significant contributions to the UK’s bioeconomy: driving transformational bioscience into industrial processes and products; creating wealth and jobs; and delivering environmental benefits, such as CO2 reduction.”

Each network includes funds to support a range of small proof of concept research projects, to demonstrate potential benefits for end user industries.  The networks will then work with industries to investigate these research challenges further. Many of these ideas and collaborative links will build into the next phase: the Industrial Biotechnology Catalyst, funded by BBSRC, the Technology Strategy Board and the EPSRC, to be launched in early 2014 to support the development of ideas from concept to commercialisation.