In this blog Professor Soccol reviews recent developments in agriculture biotechnology and how they may contribute to the circular economy - allowing materials to be recycled and reused. More efficient use of materials and more energy efficient processes in food and agricultural production are of direct relevance to SDG7 (Affordable and Clean Energy) as they help bring economic and material advancement to developing regions in a sustainable way.
In addition, Prof. Soccol discusses the importance of biofuels, an energy source that can be more sustainable and cleaner than fossil fuels and his school’s contribution to work in this area, as well as the use of agricultural and industrial residues as recycled resources
The exponential rise of pest resistances against different traditional pesticides, new demands of consumers for a more sustainable agriculture and healthier nutrition and tightening regulatory restrictions have led to the search for new agricultural products by the industry. It is in this scenario that Agricultural Biotechnology is inserted and increasingly gaining attention. Our group has as one of its main goals to produce new technologies for a more sustainable agriculture, always considering concepts of circular economy, where the existing materials can be collected from a recycling chain.
Our article published in the Springer Nature journal Planta, entitled “Bacillus lipopeptides as powerful pest control agents for a more sustainable and healthy agriculture: recent studies and innovations” shows one example of a successful developed technology. Lipopeptides are surfactant molecules, produced by some microorganisms, that affect the membrane of different phytopathogens and, consequently, control the diseases caused by them. These molecules can be produced using different substrates, including by-products and wastes, which makes technologies involving lipopeptides highly sustainable. Moreover, several strains of Bacillus subtilis, one of the main producers of lipopeptides, are considered Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS), which is a classification by the FDA that certifies that it can be consumed by humans, making the application in crops safer.
Controlling diseases in agricultural crops in a more sustainable way is one line of research in Agricultural Biotechnology. Another branch of the field is the search for new fertilizers that can fix nitrogen, solubilize phosphorus and potassium, and/or produce phytohormones. Different microorganisms have potential to perform these tasks. This is a relief for the future of agriculture, since many of its resources are from mineral sources, which are finite, and their extraction and processing can be very polluting. For example, according to van de Wiel and collaborators, in their work entitled “Improving phosphorus use efficiency in agriculture: opportunities for breeding” published in Euphytica, only 10 to 25% of the applied inorganic phosphate is used by the plants. In this scenario, P-solubilizing microorganisms can play a fundamental role.
As another example we cite here our article “Current advances in gibberellic acid (GA3) production, patented technologies and potential applications” published in Planta. GA3 is a phytohormone that can promote cell expansion and division and is one of the best-selling and most important plant growth regulators that can be produced by fungi such as Gibberella fujikuroi. Soybean, sugar beet, sweet potato, sorghum residues, wheat and rice straw, corn, rice, soybean husks, sugarcane and cassava bagasse can be used as substrates for GA3 production, showing that these molecules can not only improve agricultural production, but also participate in a cleaner and circular production of agricultural inputs.
For decades, clean and renewable energy alternatives have been sought to reduce dependence on petroleum-based fossil fuels and reduce CO2 emissions. In our School of Bioprocess Engineering and Biotechnology, the mitigation of impacts caused by anthropogenic activities, especially those related to the burning of fossil fuels, is one of the main goals. Biofuels and bioenergy, including bioethanol, biodiesel, biomethane, and biohydrogen, are promising alternatives to fossil-based fuels, especially when produced in the context of a Biorefinery applying the premises of Bioeconomy. In this topic, microbial cultures have been isolated, equipment has been designed and optimized, and processes have been scaled-up with promising results, as demonstrated by the publication “Biohydrogen production from agro-industrial wastes using Clostridium beijerinckii and isolated bacteria as inoculum” (DOI: 10.1007/s12155-021-10358-1).
Biorefineries are gaining attention worldwide in the emerging Bioeconomy because they promote circularity in industrial processes, proposing new production chains using by-products in integrated systems with zero waste emission. Another contribution of our group to this topic is the book series entitled “Biofuel and Biorefinery Technologies”, particularly the book “Liquid Biofuels: Bioethanol”.
Brazil is the largest producer of agro-industrial residues since agroindustry plays a significant role in the Brazilian economy. The high volumes of residues generated by agro-industrial activities represent an environmental challenge and an opportunity for circular bioeconomy approaches. The main characteristics of agro-industrial residues include the rich composition in polysaccharides, proteins, and other biopolymers, and their short-term renewable capacity favors their use at industrial scale, which can reduce the demand for cultivation areas avoiding major environmental impacts. For this reason, they represent a promising raw material to produce different biomolecules, biofuels, and biomaterials, or to be used in the feed industry.
Agro-industrial residues are usually recalcitrant and require strong physicochemical pretreatment for the release of fermentable sugars. On the other hand, these residues can be used without pretreatment as carbon sources and matrix supports in enzyme production for the biofuel industry. In this sense, our group develops research on the valorization of different agro-industrial residues produced in Brazil through the biotransformation in value-added biomolecules, biofuels, and biomaterials. Some of our publications on this topic are “Cocoa pod husk valorization: alkaline-enzymatic pre-treatment for propionic acid production” and “Oilseed enzymatic pretreatment for efficient oil recovery in biodiesel production industry: a review”.
The research themes described here are developed at the School of Bioprocess Engineering and Biotechnology of the Federal University of Paraná, in Curitiba, Brazil. The School was founded in 1997 by Professor Carlos Ricardo Soccol and offers undergraduate, Master and PhD courses, being the top-one Post-Graduate program in Brazil in Biotechnology.
Professor Soccol has experience in bioprocessing/biological engineering, industrial biotechnology, biofuel technology, applied microbiology and fermentation technology. His research conducted to date has resulted in 1.343 publications, including 110 patents, 28 books, 175 book chapters, 440 original papers and 590 research communications at conferences/symposia. His research articles have so far been cited more than 30.260 times on Google Scholar (H-index = 81). In 2001, he joined the University of Marseille-France as Professor Habilitation à diriger des recherches in Agri-Foods Biotechnology. He was visiting professor at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland (2009), University Lille 1-France (2014) and University Blaise Pascal, Clermont Ferrand-France (2015). Professor Soccola is Series Editor of the Springer book series Biofuel and Biorefinery Technologies and has edited numerous books, including Green Fuels Technology: Biofuels, and Liquid Biofuels: Bioethanol which will be published later this year.