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Quality of Life and
Management of Living Resources

The "cell factory"



An Illustrative project

In Starlab, 56 partners - 13 of them industrial companies - are working on six projects involving lactic acid bacteria (micro-organisms that develop in milk). Biotechnology and genetics are used in order to improve products' organoleptic qualities (such as taste, colour, and smell), shelf life, and safety, as well as to create new products. For the pharmaceutical sector, lactic acid bacteria could also be used as vehicles for new types of oral vaccinations, for example. Still more possibilities arise if we consider that the EU's annual milk production will exceed 118 million tonnes by 2005, and one quarter of this production will undergo fermentation by lactic acid bacteria.


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Implications for society

The concept of the "bio-product" is as old as the knowledge involved in the making of bread, beer, wine or cheese. However, recent techniques and knowledge in molecular biology and genetics mean that living cells - from bacteria to man - are now becoming real "factories". In vast fermentation vats, engineers can direct and control natural metabolisms in order to produce all sorts of substances with a high added value: proteins, amino acids, alcohols, citric acid, solvents and even bio-plastics. This industrial mastery of the mechanisms of life opens up revolutionary perspectives in the development of new kinds of medicines, foodstuffs with specific nutritional properties, and biodegradable biochemical products.

Implications for the economy

The upshot of this in terms of economics is substantial. The bio-industrial enzymes developed in order to improve washing agents have together halved the amount of electricity necessary for washing. Bio-medicines may reduce health costs and/or pave the way for new treatments.

Worldwide sales of twenty or so molecules produced on a large scale (insulin, interferon, erythropoietin, etc.) already amount to 9.35 billion euros. The recent strategic changes in the worldwide chemical industry, which is now concentrating on life sciences, in contrast to the traditional chemical sectors, reveal the issues involved in the extremely rapid growth of this scientific and technological domain. In less than five years' time, the world market for bio-products, especially in the fields of health and the environment, could amount to over 100 billion euros, with the added bonus of perhaps 200000 new jobs.

Implications for Europe

Europe possesses first-rate know-how in this exploitation of living resources. However, all too often, the commercial implementation takes place elsewhere, particularly in the United States of America. This key action should make it possible to strengthen European capabilities in this domain by encouraging multidisciplinary approaches involving molecular genetics and biology, physiology, and biotechnological engineering, which are indispensable to the understanding of how cells work, and to develop industrially viable applications.

Targeted fields of research
  • Cell factory engineering - Better understanding of the working of cells, the functions of genes, and of metabolic processes.Identification and use of metabolic and genetic diversity, etc.;
  • Development of new processes and products - Research to find genes permitting the production of new substances for pharmacology, the food industry, industry, etc.;
  • Exploitation of new raw materials - Use of organic waste or biomass by cell factories.Treating and recycling of waste, biological trials, and bio-captors.

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