Finding the most efficient and clean ways of producing fuel, plastics or rubber from microorganisms is the goal of certain microbiologists. Specialist in the field, Vincent Martin tells us more about the emergence plant-based chemistry.
Vincent Martin is an Associate Professor of Microbiology in the Department of Biology at Concordia University and holds the Canada Research Chair in Microbial Genomics and Engineering. He obtained a B.Sc. in Microbiology from McGill University (1989), an M.Sc. in Environmental Biology from the University of Guelph (1993) and a PhD in Microbiology from the University of British Columbia (1999). In 2004, he received the Petro-Canada Young Innovator Award.
1) Could you tell us a bit about your background and how your interest in microbiology began?
My career path has not been very traditional. I started studying microbiology from an environmental perspective. In the beginning, my research was focused on the use of microorganisms to improve environmental conditions, such as wastewater treatment. I put forward research on the way in which a microorganism can digest a toxic product so as to eliminate it completely. And I realized that the opposite was also possible: taking a non-toxic molecule and converting it into a more complex molecule. The processes of biodegradation and biosynthesis function inversely. I did my PhD in biodegradation in soil decontamination. During my post-doctorate in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, we were doing what is called “metabolic engineering”: how to modify microorganisms and biosynthesis pathways to produce value-added chemical molecules. This is how I found myself in the field of molecular biology.
2) Can you explain what green chemistry is and how it is different from synthetic biology?
Traditional chemistry has often been very polluting and very toxic. The goal of green chemistry is to develop chemical processes that have less impact on the environment. These processes often require less energy, fewer toxic catalysts and produce less waste.
The purpose of synthetic biology is the same, but we use microorganisms to do this. We try to reproduce traditional chemistry with microorganisms. There are many advantages to using microorganisms: they can function at normal temperatures and do not produce any toxicity.
3) Tell us about your recent discoveries?
There is a lot of work being done on the petrochemical side.
When a barrel of oil is extracted from the ground, a certain amount will be used as fuel, but there is also a significant portion used by the petrochemical industry for the manufacture of plastic materials, polymers, etc.
If we look at the molecules that make up plastic, for example, we could reproduce them using the natural metabolism of microorganisms. More specifically, we try to find enzymes, combine them in a cell, then do a little engineering and biology in order to produce an interesting molecule for the industry. With synthetic biology, we can obtain molecules identical to those of petrochemical origin via living microorganisms that have been "reprogrammed". The idea is to simplify and standardize the biology in order to obtain more predictable results.
4) Have you had any conclusive results?
Yes, we have tested a precursor process. We combined several enzymes into a microorganism, which allows it to transform glucose into adipic acid in a fermentation process. Same as what would be done to produce beer, for example.
Other successful results were obtained by the Montreal-based company Bioamber, which owns a plant in southern Ontario. They have begun to develop a bioprocess to produce succinic acid from glucose, glycerin and CO2 - all resulting from plant-based production. Succinic acid is mainly produced from maleic acid, which in turn is produced from butane. It is, therefore, an intermediate product derived from petrochemicals. This molecule can be used and converted to make petrochemicals (polymers and plastics). Thanks to the Bioamber’s discoveries, we would have a cleaner process.
5) Why is it important that chemists today take into account the ecological consequences of the molecules and materials they develop?
When the price of a barrel of oil rose above $100, it was the industrialists themselves who came to researchers for solutions to replace oil. The market is interested and is looking for alternatives to, on the one hand, find raw materials which are less volatile in price than oil and, on the other, achieve carbon neutrality. Biotechnology could revitalise the industry and create new jobs.
The challenge remains: to obtain comparable and competitive yields with petrochemicals. This is quite complicated because we are talking about very large volumes and very large markets. But little by little, we are proceeding in that direction.
6) Which industries are you going to revolutionize?
Traditionally, it’s been the petrochemical industry that we have been trying to make cleaner but another industry trying to change its traditional model is the forestry industry. Demand for newsprint has fallen from 40% to 60% in recent years. Many factories have had to close or lose a lot of money. They are therefore trying to develop new processes in order to develop new markets. In Montreal, there is a pilot factory that instead of converting wood into pulp or lumber, converts it into sugar. And by fermenting the sugar, it can be converted into a petrochemical molecule.
7) What role does Montreal play in the advancement of this research?
Internationally, this research is just starting up. The industry and its technology are in early stages but they are developing rapidly.
Bioamber, for example, is one of the first companies in Canada to develop bioprocesses for the production of petrochemicals. But demand is rising as much in Canada as in the United States.
8) What advances would you like to further tomorrow?
For me, it's always a case of looking for processes and methods that are more sustainable, to develop chemical processes that have little or no impact on the environment.