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S1007: The Science and Engineering for a Biobased Industry and Economy

Statement of Issues and Justification

A. The Land Grant University System, Resource Limitation, and The Impending Biological Revolution. The Land-grant university system was established in 1862 for the purpose of providing colleges for the benefit of agriculture and the mechanic arts. This revolutionary approach to education has been remarkably successful. Since its inception, the land-grant system has been the major driving force for the development of technology and an educated work force to use the technology that has maintained an exponential rate of increase in food production outpacing the rate of human population increase. This success is even more remarkable in light of the fact that in recent years the increase in food production has occurred using constant land area. As the world human population continues to grow, the challenge to increase food production on a sustainable basis remains staggering.

Much of the remarkable increase in food production has been made possible by the use of fossil fuels to drive the system. The shift to a fossil fuel economy has transformed agriculture linking it to energy intensive technologies. If fossil fuel use were abruptly discontinued it has been estimated (Rossi & Tiezzi, 1991) that 4 of 5 humans alive today would starve. Our dependence on fossil fuels is so extensive that we can no longer claim that agriculture converts solar energy into food energy. Rather, we are using some solar energy to convert fossil fuel to food with poor efficiency. Production, processing, storage, and distribution of food requires approximately 15% of our annual national energy supply (Pimentel & Pimentel, 1996). The time has come to direct the attention and power of the Land Grant University System toward the development of technology that can "wean" us from use of fossil fuel.

As staggering as is the challenge to meet food production needs, it is meager compared to the need for energy. It requires approximately 100-fold more energy to sustain the current U.S. standard of living as it does to nourish our bodies. For example, the U.S. consumes approximately 100 quadrillion Btu annually. Food energy necessary to sustain our population is 1.2 quadrillion Btu/year of the approximately 100 quadrillion Btu (US DOE, 2000). Our population is fed with this 1.2 quadrillion Btu annually (3000 kcal/(person x day) x 365 days/year x 284,212,779 people x 1 Btu/0.252kcal = 1.2 quadrillion Btu/year). In effect, we are converting fossil fuel to food with an efficiency of about 8%. In the next 100 years world human population is projected to stabilize at about 10 billion (Caldwell, 1999). During this time, some fossil fuels may be approaching depletion (Woolsey, 2000). Having the goal of supporting a population of 10 billion at the current standard of living of the US will require approximately 4,000 quadrillion Btu annually worldwide. These demands cannot be sustained in a solar-driven world with the current technology base.

However, the land-grant university system provides a mechanism for leadership and technology development to accomplish this goal. It includes expert scientists in all areas related to the capture of solar energy and its transformation to food, fuel, and shelter. We have seen national interest in biomass-based fuel and chemicals rise and fall over the past thirty years with each oil embargo or market adjustment. Thus, it is fair for one to ask "What is new about situation today that justifies a commitment by land grant institutions to a renewed investment in biomass-based fuel and chemicals research and teaching?" One of the answers to this question has to be scientific and engineering breakthroughs that are creating new opportunities for producing and processing biomass resources, plants and microorganisms, and the engineering of novel biocatalysts, reactors and industrial processes.

B. Enabling The New Bioindustries A great deal of the excitement over the potential for agriculturally-based bioindustries is driven by the enabling technologies of genomics and proteomics. Through these technologies we have obtained the ability to decipher and to manipulate plant genomes to produce both quantitative and qualitative changes in the organic constituents of plant biomass. Genomics and proteomics have also provided us with a greater understanding of gene regulation and control of plant metabolic pathways to the point that we can engineer metabolic pathways with unprecedented efficiencies and reliability. The combination of this knowledge allows engineers and scientist to be more creative and more efficient in the development of novel biocatalysts, biomass conversion processes, and bio-industrial systems. For instance, one can imagine that genes coding for certain polysaccharide degrading enzyme might be introduced in plants for the large-scale production of cellulases and other polysaccharide degrading enzymes; In essence the plant will be designed to serve as the factory. Molecular biology has also provided us with a number of tools that allow us to engage in protein engineering to enhance the hydrolytic capability of a number of polysaccharide-degrading enzymes through site-directed mutagenesis or directed evolution. In addition, advances in molecular biology have provided technologies that permit metabolic engineering of microorganisms to increase enzyme copy number or to metabolize multiple carbon sources. For example, one can envision protein engineering activities leading to the development of cellulases with higher activities on crystalline cellulose with the genes for these cellulases transferable into microorganisms that can both hydrolyze cellulose to glucose and ferment glucose to ethanol; (ie, simultaneous saccharification and fermentation).

Breakthroughs are not limited to only molecular biology and genetics. Over the past 15 years, engineers have made tremendous advances in the fractionation and bioprocessing of agriculturally-based resources into raw materials that are required to obtain the principal building blocks for the synthesis of new products. For example, the critical first step in bioconversion requires that ligno-cellulosic materials be fractionated into constituent biopolymers and modified to facilitate either enzymatic or microbial conversion. Several promising fractionation (pre-treatment) technologies, such as ammonia fiber explosion or alkaline pretreatment, appear promising, and additional research and development may result in improved yields and reactivity. In addition, engineering advances in bioseparation technologies are improving our ability to identify and separate secondary metabolites and other biocompounds from plant material. Advances in nanobiotechnology such as the fabrication microfluidic channels in a silicon wafer couple that take advantage of differences in physical and chemical properties such as diffusion, electrophoretic mobility, or chemical affinity to produce rapid, efficient separations of proteins, secondary metabolites and other organic compound are only a few of the recent engineering achievements. In analytical biotechnology, chemical and biological techniques are combined and integrated into engineered devices or sensors for the detection and quantification of secondary metabolites and other organic compounds in a variety of bioprocesses.

Development of advanced biological conversion processes (enzymatic, microbial and physical/chemical processes) is an important part of the bioprocessing research agenda. Biological processes are the preferred paths for converting agriculturally-based resources into industrial products. Bioprocesses tend to have higher reaction specificity, milder reaction conditions and produce fewer toxic by-products. These characteristics are very consistent with the goal of developing industrial processes and systems that are environmentally friendly. Innovative research is currently underway that links physical/chemical processes, such as gasification, with microbial conversion processes. These novel reaction systems are evolving in response to the heterogeneity of most biomass resources and the realization that there are important autotropic microorganisms that are effective in converting common bio-organic compounds into more useful industrial or biomedical compounds. Land grant institutions across the USA represent a great repository of scientific and engineering know-how that can be utilized to catalyze the transition of society from a fossil fuel to a bio-based economy.

Another promising application for agriculture is the production of biopharmaceuticals using plant based materials. The development of recombinant DNA technology has enabled the insertion of exogenous genes into plant genome. As eucaryotes, plants can be used to express functional human proteins. This has been shown in green plant tissues, such as tobacco leaves, and seeds, such as corn and canola. Plants offer unparalleled advantageous for scale-up production of recombinant products as compared to microbial, cell culture, and transgenic animal expression systems. For crops at risk because of health (such as tobacco), or economic related issues, the development of new applications is critical for a sustained US agricultural economy. The potential of utilizing plants as biopharmaceutical production factories has been recognized but not been utilized. A major barrier will be the development of economic processes for recombinant protein recovery and purification. It is the mission of the land grant institutions to break this barrier and to promote wider applications for various corps for a more profitable and sustainable agricultural economy.

C. The Educational Infrastructure for a Bio-based Economy. Our land grant institutions attract some of the best young minds in this country and from the broader world community. We need to tap this resource and begin to develop its potential for creating new and innovative systems for producing biobased products. We need to provide these students with fundamental training in the natural sciences, economics, and engineering. They must be taught to think critically about structure and function of bio-based industries and how to make these industries sustainable.

Many recent federal, industrial, and academic studies have concluded that the U.S. economy of the 21st century will be biobased (Armstrong, 1999; National Research Council, 2000). During the transition from a petroleum-based economy to a biobased economy, products and processes based on biological raw materials will replace those based on fossil fuels. Biorefineries will use many types of biomass sources and produce a broad range of carbon-based products, energy fuels, oils, biochemicals, as well as a variety of biomaterials.

The educational infrastructure needed to provide such training is currently not available in conventional academic programs, which provide a narrow focus and do not encourage interactions between students from different departments. Innovative, new training programs are needed that minimize these barriers and provide more integrated programs. These programs must train students to communicate effectively, to solve problems, and to design processes in a multidisciplinary setting.

Because the participants in this regional effort are geographically dispersed, a distance-learning platform for courses developed as part of this regional project is strongly recommended. Internet-compatible courses can serve students in virtually any location. It is anticipated that other distance education media such as satellite communication methods could also be used to offer these course. In instances where internet delivery is impractical (e.g., lab-based courses), conventional, on-site course delivery may the best model. In either case the technical content of such courses should be disseminated, if possible, via publications in pedagogical journals.

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