Biotech: Can Microorganisms Produce New Industrial Materials?

Scientists aim to create bacteria "mini factories," using microorganisms to produce new materials for industrial use


When engineers detect new biological design principles, they usually try to translate them into new technologies – and ultimately novel applications. But this unfolding of innovation doesn't only happen on a large scale: micro and nano-structured biomaterials are becoming the new source-of-choice for industrial materials.

"Natural materials are ingeniously structured composites that combine many interesting qualities," says Joachim Bill, materials scientist at the University of Stuttgart. "Take for example mother of pearl shells. They are especially hard, firm and yet extremely durable. Such substances, which follow biological structures, are technically versatile."

Under the microscope, the mother of pearl's secrets are quickly revealed: the substance is composed of many layers of a particular form of crystalline calcium carbonate. In each layer, tiny hexagonal crystals of aragonite overlap like tiles, and a thin layer of organic glue holds the individual layers together. "Because of this structure, shells are 3,000 times more durable than pure aragonite" says Bill.

His research team has developed a kind of artificial pearl based on titanium dioxide. This material, which is bionic-inspired and extremely scratch-resistant, can be applied to plastic surfaces. "A well-known bathtub manufacturer is even looking to apply this technology to its products," says Bill. At the moment, however, it remains in preliminary research phases.

Natural biomaterials have little industrial application – for this reason, the team is working to change the genes responsible for bio-materialization. By doing this, they hope to be able to control the shape, size and chemical composition of their materials. The German Research Foundation supports this research with about two million euros annually. The materials scientists, who are working together with three other institutions, are expected to produce results within six years.

The Stuttgart team is currently working to create special oxide ceramic from viruses. Specifically, they want zinc oxide, which is used to develop transparent electrically conductive layers that serve as contacts for light emitting diodes, solar cells and liquid crystal displays. Zinc is an essential trace element in living organisms, and has many biological functions. "We want to change the genetic regulatory mechanisms of certain organisms in order to make this material available to us," says Bill.

Tobacco "mosaic" viruses infect plants and manipulate their genes, causing leaves to take on a mosaic coloring. In the laboratory, however, this virus takes on the role of a catalyst. When the virus particles are placed in a supersaturated solution of zinc nitrate, the coveted zinc oxide precipitates and forms its regular structure. Depending on how the researchers change the composition of the viral proteins, the zinc oxide crystal will form into various structured layers. Some of them resemble a sponge while others look like a close-cropped lawn. "We can create specially structured layers with different material properties on a micro and nano scale," explains Bill.

Synthetic biology combines bimolecular processes with engineering concepts. In this field, as in biotechnology, biological cells function as miniature factories. Through special manipulation, scientists are able to form structures that do not exist in nature. Nediljko Budisa, head of the Research Group Molecular Biotechnology at the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Biochemistry in Martinsried, calls it "code engineering." These scientists drive ordinary microorganisms to produce protein compounds that life has yet discovered. These artificial proteins may even help the plastics industry to develop more environmentally friendly and efficient materials in the future. Used in detergents, synthetic proteins would be ten times more effective than conventional anti-grease products.

Early on, scientists were just dabbling with these processes. In the 1960s, genetic researchers began to experiment with amino acids to find out how nature composes proteins and what could happen when these construction plans are amended. Proteins are the main players in the body: they transport materials, carry messages, and run vital processes as molecular machines. These "men of the control cell" are composed of amino acids whose sequences are determined by genetic information. Even the translation of this information during the formation of proteins is determined by the genetic code.

"All living things use a standard set of 20 different amino acids from which proteins are formed," says Lars Merkel, a member of Budisa's research team. But nature uses only a narrow repertoire of theoretically possible amino acids. "Many amino compounds are missing, such as the ones that contain the atoms fluorine, chlorine, bromine and silicon," explains Merkel. Living organisms have no use for these elements. However, these building blocks may be able to produce new therapeutic proteins and industrially important enzymes.

MPI researchers have gotten much closer to reaching their goal. In the laboratory, they have produced several new amino acids, including one that contains the element fluorine. But how can these artificial blocks be transferred to a target protein, in order to modify it for a specific application? Nature, uninterested in these materials, never developed a construction plan for the scientists to mimic. So they try something new: intestinal bacteria strains, which are not able to produce some of the 20 natural amino acids themselves.

These microbes must therefore acquire the missing amino acids from whatever growth medium they are in. When these acids are used up, the bacteria are faced with withdrawal, and will begin accepting similar structured compounds. The researchers begin to add small amounts of a fluorine-containing amino acid to the nutrient solution.

Some of the microbes are not particularly selective. They accept the artificial building blocks, build them into the target protein, and even begin to multiply. During this process, the synthetic amino acids transfer their properties to the proteins. Today, researchers are able to replace up to three amino acids with artificial compounds during a single experiment.

"This process might help us to develop entirely new classes of products whose biochemical syntheses we were previously unable to tap," says Merkel. Thus, with fluorine-containing proteins, catalysts can be created to work in both organic solvents and water. "It's like the Teflon pan, where a fluorine coating ensures that no water or fat can stick," he adds. Industry could use such catalysts well, as plastics containing fluorine must now be produced chemically through energy-consuming processes. Thanks to this new method, fluorine biomaterials could be produced cheaply and in an environmentally friendly manner. That's big work for such small organisms.

Read the original article in German

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!