How biology can help clean up mining, emissions and more

Guest Author
A human hand wearing a lab glove holds up a petri dish with a leaf inside on the left; on the right, a robotic hand holds up a vial containing a spiral of DNA.
Illustration by Nadya Nickels.

The solutions to many urgent environmental concerns like global CO2 emissions, water contamination and mining waste already exist in nature.

The answer lies at the microscopic level, using biological processes that have been around for millions of years. The challenge is identifying, harnessing and scaling these solutions to combat the full magnitude of human-made environmental crises.

A brief refresher from an introductory biology class: The term ‘biotechnology’ incorporates a range of potential solutions derived from microorganisms, or specific proteins or enzymes, that occur naturally throughout our world. These microbes (short for microscopic organisms) can be deployed to solve a range of environmental problems. Some of the most promising natural processes include solubilization (dissolving substances), metabolization (using compounds for energy) and breaking bonds (separating molecules with enzymes).

We now have the technology needed to develop tangible solutions from these natural processes. For example, we can use biology to break down harmful chemicals that leak into groundwater from nearby landfills or eat up CO2 emissions and turn them into useful biomass or byproducts.

The biggest remaining roadblock is scale: making effective and economical natural solutions widely available.

Over the past two years, my team has screened more than 100 potential solutions and launched two commercial products after careful research and development. We also weeded out more than 40 ideas that aren’t scalable or deployable and have learned the hard way about many of the pitfalls.

Our team doesn’t have all the answers, but we’ve learned a few lessons that can help companies avoid common mistakes.

Choose the right technology for the right problem

Choosing the appropriate technology to address overarching issues might appear straightforward, yet it poses a significant obstacle.

Only certain solutions deployed for specific uses can be replicated on a large enough scale, and at a low enough cost, to be commercially viable. After finding a possible biotechnology fix, the next step is to think through all the reasons a solution could fail. Then you can start to eliminate those failure points and zero in on the right application of a given technology.

It’s also critical to ensure biological solutions work with incumbent infrastructure, which significantly improves the chance of widespread adoption. For example, we are working with mining partners to develop a microbial-based technology that can be added to current processes to produce higher-yield ores. This will help meet the demand for critical minerals like lithium that power electric vehicles.

Test for efficacy early on

Once you’ve chosen the right solution for the right problem, the next step is to test its efficacy as early as possible before the “development” stage of research and development (R&D). Otherwise, you could spend years trying to solve one particular technical challenge and not be any closer to a commercially viable solution. This means designing rigorous trials based on real-world conditions and not letting your optimism blind you to potential flaws.

One of the projects we’re exploring is developing an enzyme that degrades forever chemicals (known by their collective acronym PFAS) and renders them inert. We’ve demonstrated that polyfluorinated compounds, one kind of PFAS, can be more easily degraded than perfluorinated compounds, another variety of these chemicals.

We also must consider what we are degrading these chemicals into and ensure we don’t create a different PFAS or another harmful molecule, thus creating a new problem. We need to test for and answer that question in order to move forward with the project.

Ensure economies of scale

Completing a realistic economic analysis early on in the development cycle can prevent major hurdles down the line. One pitfall is assuming scale will solve all your economic problems. There’s a misconception that if a solution costs $100 to create in a lab, you can bring it down to $1 if you just keep scaling it.

Costs need to be assessed holistically, taking into account capital expenses, integration into site operations, training, chemicals, power usage, disposal and other expenses. The ideal projects will have industry-leading low operating costs, negative CO2 impact and seamless integration into existing operations.

For example, in our research, we’ve found there is untapped potential in mining waste that, with the right biological solution, can be converted into a sellable material, boosting the economic case for cleaning up waste.

By using technology to optimize biological processes, it’s possible to achieve everything from cleaning up pollution to degrading plastic waste and eating up carbon emissions.

We have barely scratched the surface of our planet’s biodiversity. In fact, the Earth is estimated to have over 1 trillion microbes, and 99.999% of them have yet to be discovered. The future of these capabilities relies on solving the scale factor so we can harness nature to create commercial-scale solutions.