Environmental Biotechnology Network

Lead Research Organisation: University of Southampton
Department Name: Faculty of Engineering & the Environment

Abstract

EBNet focuses on large-scale environmental biotechnology for protection, remediation and sustainability of the human/environment interface. The current revolution in biosciences is creating new tools that offer the chance to optimise existing processes and create more sustainable 'future-proof' technologies in new areas of application, targeting both previously intractable problems and new challenges such as emerging pollutants. Successful exploitation depends on combining an enhanced understanding of the fundamental science with an ability to apply this in full-scale engineered systems. EBNet thus aims to strengthen the links between those working at the forefront of microbial genomics, metabolic capabilities and community interactions; and those designing next-generation environmental protection technologies based on sustainable bioprocesses. It will:
- Promote a step change in effective interaction between fundamental science and applied process technologies, in both an academic and an industrial context
- Establish a platform for academic stakeholders to work closely with industry on developing and assessing new concepts and guiding them towards higher TRL
- Identify and stimulate the next generation of academic leaders by providing opportunities for skills development, promotion of interdisciplinarity and team-building
- Disseminate concepts to all stakeholders, including government, industry, regulatory bodies, professional and trade associations, NGOs and the public
- Extend beyond the UK to meet expanding biotechnology markets, and find solutions to intractable environmental problems worldwide
EBNet will achieve this by developing 3 interrelated themes as platforms for engagement, discussion, translational research development and dissemination, which highlight to the membership the diversity and breadth of the Network. They are: Pollutants and media covering both traditional and emerging pollutants; Biosciences to engineering to develop and improve technology for pollution control, resource recovery and bioenergy generation; and Technology interfaces for process integration, techno-economic and sustainability assessment

EBNet networking and dissemination activities include an annual industry/academic event which showcases the disciplines needed to create a coherent research community that can explore the field all the way from functionality at a molecular level to the societal implications of introducing new approaches and technologies. Working groups (WG) will identify priority areas and draw on selected participants to ensure cross-fertilisation and the transfer of knowledge between disciplines, translating these into tangible outputs for stakeholders, policy-makers and other actors. Joint events with other Networks have an important function, as all industrial biotechnology applications are likely to have some environmental impact, and joined-up thinking and the design of integrated processes is critical to developing a successful and sustainable bio-economy. Cross-theme workshops will act as sandpits for cross-disciplinary and industry/academic discussion of transitional research developments. There is a strong focus on empowering early career researchers (ECR) with an annual ECR conference, cross-disciplinary skills training, outreach activities, active programmes of inter-laboratory and industry secondments and directly allocated funds for ECR mobility to present work at international events.

Flexible funding will be used firstly to promote interdisciplinary translational research that moves laboratory findings closer to industrial application; and secondly to foster industry/academic links by supporting the implementation of new technology through trouble shooting and problem-solving research.

EDNet has a strong and robust management and governance plan that has a high level of industrial involvement and reaches out to attract membership of the EB Community worldwide.

Technical Summary

Microbial systems provide a range of environmental protection and bioremediation services, forming the basis for some of the world's largest industries across the Water-Wastes-Soil nexus. Development of such systems to date has been largely empirical and incremental, but the pace is changing in response to the need to match expanding global demand with finite resources. There are also new challenges to address, ranging from the emergence of new micro-pollutants to the requirement for efficient closed-loop systems that combine treatment with resource recovery. The current revolution in biological and analytical sciences is creating tools that give unprecedented insights into these systems from genetic to community level, and into factors that can potentially be used to control and harness them. At the same time new approaches allow enhanced measurement and modelling of engineering phenomena such as mixing and mass transfer; while advances in materials science and separation technologies offer the potential for selectively retaining microbial biomass and/or removing final and intermediate metabolic products. These developments thus offer a chance to optimise existing treatment processes and to create more sustainable 'future-proof' technologies in new areas of application. Successful exploitation of these opportunities depends, however, on bringing together an enhanced knowledge of the underlying science with the ability apply this in large-scale engineered systems, which must meet both societal expectations and increasingly stringent economic and environmental requirements. The aim of EBNet is thus to develop and strengthen links between advanced molecular and applied microbiology, engineering and systems optimisation to maximise the societal impacts and benefits. Its overall goal is to take fundamental discovery science towards practical application in key areas of the human/environment interface.

Planned Impact

The Network has been specifically planned to build on the achievements and experience gained in precursor NIBBs, and to deliver the following impacts:
- It will build a community of key players in the field of environmental biotechnology, in particular linking natural and social sciences and engineering disciplines, and providing a bridge between academic and business communities. The latter include FT100 companies in the water and waste sectors; other major beneficiaries are likely to be innovative SMEs eager to explore and exploit advances in fundamental science and to participate in collaborative research as a means of developing new processes and markets. One specific area of impact will come through a focus on tackling new challenges associated with emerging pollutants (micro-plastics, microfibers, nanoparticles, surfactants, petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals and other endocrine disruptors).
- It will initiate interdisciplinary research involving biosciences, biochemistry and engineering in combination with environmental and social sciences. This is a key goal and through pump-priming ideas generated in cross-disciplinary workshops small consortia will form to undertake preliminary translational research. The impact of this will stimulate exploration of ideas and generation of initial data with the aim of progressing towards higher TRL either through further research funding opportunities or in conjunction with industrial take-up.
- A further impact of working across disciplines and of embedding this ethos in the Network is that higher quality consortium proposals are likely to be presented to a range of national and international funding sources, including UKRI and EU programmes (subject to Brexit).
- It will make a significant contribution to establishing the UK as an internationally recognised partner of choice in the area of microbial biotechnologies for environmental protection and sustainability. This will be achieved both by the formation of a unique interlinked community of scientific expertise; and by promotion of high-level interactions with a spectrum of leading international scientists on an International Advisory Group.
- In particular, it will showcase UK expertise in research utilising genomic, systems biology and synthetic biology approaches to environmental protection and remediation technologies; while also driving forward the research agenda in these areas by creating an ideal locus for the identification of links between microbial genetics, community structure and functionality, supported by the two-way flow of data between 'deep science' and pilot or full-scale industrial practice.
- It will promote knowledge exchange and the translation of research from fundamental science to practical applications in the field of applied biotechnology, creating business opportunities for industry and SME partners to develop novel systems and process control tools based on new concepts of metabolic functionality.
- It will provide a source of evidence and expertise in support of UK policy in the field of IBBE, both through direct involvement with bodies such as the Environment Agency (EA), Department for environment, food and rural affairs (Defra) and Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC); and indirectly by working with Trade and Professional associations in an advisory capacity.
- It will support the personal development of Network members across the career span, and especially at early career stage, by providing opportunities for interaction between industry and academic researchers, and creating lasting links (both nationally and internationally) between different disciplines and communities.
- Through interaction with other NIBBs it will help to promote development of the essential elements for a sustainable circular economy by identifying opportunities to integrate environmental protection with bioenergy production and the manufacture of value-added products from waste.

Publications

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