“Better productivity, higher concentrations, purer products, more sustainable production.” Senior Science Fellow Bioinformatics and Modeling Hans Roubos sums up the harvest of the dazzling pace of progress in microbiology.
The field has moved from random screening for better strains to targeted precision genome engineering. The result: much, much faster innovation. He is proud to be part of this development. “And it is highly satisfying to see the result of your work actually being produced in a factory.”
“Strain development used to be slow and a matter of trial and error”, Hans Roubos starts out. “Random screening followed by selection of the best organisms. Then genetic modification was introduced, followed by screening to find out the results of these modifications. During the nineties, scientists learned to ‘read’ DNA. Around the year 2000 this ‘reading’ of DNA was complemented by ‘writing’ it. Roubos: “It became possible to chemically make DNA and thereby to create targeted changes in micro-organisms on the basis of systemic insights. The design of micro-organisms came within reach.”
While the speed of development grew exponentially, the cost dropped at the same rate. Roubos: “Models helped to provide insight in microbiologic principles. DNA design was standardized with ‘bio-bricks’: standard pieces of DNA that could be ‘clicked’ together as Lego-bricks. Standardization led to automation, enabling an enormous upscaling in testing, from a maximum of a hundred lab tests at the same time to tens of thousands lab tests performed in one run.”
Roubos underlines: “All this new enabling technology has sped up the pace of innovation. Large biotech projects that used to take ten years now only take five years. Especially the former bottleneck of micro-organism development no longer slows down progress. Instead of only one or two, we now can for instance change a combination of twenty genes simultaneously.”
This has led to tangible results, Roubos stresses: “Better productivity, higher concentrations, purer products. Another illustration is our current production of the plastics monomer succinic acid in a biotechnological instead of a chemical process, which is a more sustainable way to produce.”
All these results don’t spring from isolated development. They are the result of multiple collaborations. Roubos: “For instance, we tap in on the latest scientific developments through our cooperation with professor Chris Voigt at MIT in Boston, USA, who also became a member of the DSM scientific Advisory Board. On top of that, we work together a lot with DSM Nutritional Products at Lexington and Columbia in the USA and Kaiseraugst in Switzerland. The more new knowledge is shared, the faster developments take place. Collaboration is one of the most interesting aspects of my job.”
But there is a lot more that makes working in his field exciting, according to Roubos: “To work on developments that ultimately lead to actual production, such as succinic acid. This is an ingredient of specialized polyesters and alkyd resins. It is also used in the food and beverage industry as an acidity regulator. The plant near Alessandria in Italy produces 10,000 tons annually in the Reverdia joint venture of DSM and Roquette.”. What is most gratifying is to be involved in new scientific developments that evolve incredibly fast. Roubos: “Take for instance the CRISPR/Cas system for precision genome engineering. It can be used for relatively easy adding genes, disrupting or changing the sequence of specific genes and gene regulation and is therefore regarded as one of the inventions of the century. It was launched four years ago and now already hundreds of papers and hundreds of patents are based on it. It is fascinating to be involved in that.”