Natural scientists like Charles Darwin and Alexander von Humboldt travelled to foreign countries, described natural phenomena and discovered a wealth of new plant and animal species. They changed our picture of the world, but did not venture into the microcosmos.
That is what we now need to focus on, because the realm of bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms offers tools with the potential to halt climate change, facilitate the transition from fossil to renewable raw materials and safeguard our prosperity. Microorganisms have populated our planet for almost four billion years. No wonder they are better at making sustainable use of resources than we are.
Experts presume that millions of different species of microorganisms live in the soil alone. There are even bacteria that live in hot springs and other extreme habitats. Their heat resistance or other unusual characteristics make them extremely interesting for industrial purposes. An estimated 99 % of all microorganisms have yet to be discovered. BRAIN has been exploring the realm of the microorganisms for over 20 years. The company’s own bioarchives already hold a store of 53,000 cultivable microorganisms and over 50,000 natural substances, all of which are well characterised. In addition to these, the company uses a special trick to harness the genetic diversity of those microorganisms that do not flourish in the laboratory. Our scientists take a sample such as a handful of soil and isolate the metagenome (all genes of all the microorganisms that live in the sample). They then clone the gene snippets and incorporate them into the genes of cells such as Escherichia coli, which are easy to cultivate. BRAIN pioneered this metagenome technology back in 1999.
In BRAIN’s bioarchives, many production strains and technically relevant natural substances have already been discovered by means of specific screening. They include biocatalysts for the chemical industry and bioactive additives for foodstuffs and cosmetics. Our extensive collection also includes microorganisms that convert the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into valuable substances or enrich rare metals from rock. These “spot-on” microorganisms serve as prototypes that BRAIN optimises for technical use by means of molecular biology techniques. Depending on the project, our scientists also transfer animal or plant genes to industrial-grade yeast or bacterial cells.
But discoveries call for creativity as well as technical know-how. They call for the ability to think laterally; to abandon mental blinkers, take different perspectives and link up things that initially appear completely unrelated. At BRAIN, everything fits together - bacteria and mining, maggot proteins and wound healing, taste cells and reducing hypertension.
Bacteria in mining
Microorganisms have more experience of mining for minerals than we do. For billions of years, they have been extracting iron and other essential metals from rock. They are also experts in sifting out toxic metals. Can these microbial tools be put to industrial use? Yes, says BRAIN biochemist Dr Esther Gabor. Together with her colleagues, she has discovered bacteria in BRAIN’s bioarchives that enrich noble metals. The cells are even capable of isolating the valuable elements from ores that are extremely poor in metal. Gabor and her team have also found organisms that selectively bind to rare earth metals. Elements from this group are essential for wind turbines and other advanced technologies, but are mainly mined in China under conditions that are disastrous for the environment. Bacteria take a more gentle approach. They are also capable of harnessing European deposits and make it easier to recycle electronic waste.
How blow flies help with wound treatment
Often, the only thing that can help to heal chronic wounds are the maggots of the green bottle fly Lucilia sericata. They are placed in chronic wounds to clean them. Only then can fresh tissue regrow. However, such treatment calls for specialised doctors, and many patients find it revolting. Scientists at BRAIN therefore used modern genetic analysis to find out exactly how the maggots act. BRAIN researchers discovered a special maggot enzyme that dissolves the wound debris without harming healthy tissue. The team around Dr. Béla Kelety and Dr. Alexander Pelzer named it “Aurase” and used it to develop products for cleaning wounds without the “yuck” factor. The Aurase gene was incorporated into yeast cells that produce the active enzyme in large quantities. The intention is to apply it to wounds in the form of a gel. The gel proved effective and well tolerated in preliminary tests. The next step is clinical testing.
Good taste thanks to biotech
Potato crisps and chocolate, children’s yogurts, soft drinks and many other convenience products contain too much fat, salt or sugar. When searching for bioactive ingredients for healthier foods, molecular biologists at BRAIN in the team led by Dr Michael Krohn and Dr Katja Riedel developed a screening process using taste cells derived from the human tongue. Using this process, they examined thousands of natural substances and discovered several biomolecules that bind to our taste sensors and trick the sense of taste. A salt enhancer and a bitter taste blocker have already been developed to an advanced stage. The latter removes the unpleasant taste of articifial sweeteners, cough mixtures and herbal teas. According to a study by BRAIN and the University of Halle, foods with a reduced salt, fat and sugar content might cut costs in the German health care system by several billions of euros.