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Greenhouse Gases to Feed the Hungry?

This article was originally posted on Medium.



Bioconversion may be able to work wonders.


Today is the United Nations' World Environment Day and the theme is “Celebrate Biodiversity. The UN states, “With one million species facing extinction, there has never been a more important time to focus on biodiversity.” We agree. We also think it’s a perfect time to tell people about an exciting initiative to use Mother Nature’s biodiversity to convert greenhouse gases into useful by-products ranging from food to building materials.

 

John McDougall remembers sitting around the dining room table back in the 1950s when the family was having another one of its lively discussions. After the meal was finished, his father, John Senior, pulled out a device and played back the entire dinner conversation to the rest of the family. Everyone was flabbergasted — and immediately demanded to know how the new piece of technology worked!


It is that lifelong, insatiable curiosity that has driven McDougall, the former head of Canada’s National Research Council, in his latest quest. The idea first began percolating in his head before his time at NRC; it was back when he was overseeing the Alberta Research Council. It came to a head two years ago when he invited 15 leading scientists and industry experts from around the world to his home near the university campus in Edmonton, Alberta. Around the table, he was looking for far more than just lively discussions. He had his mindset on what is arguably the most pressing issue in the modern world — and that was a big part of the allure for the guests.


The Greenhouse Gas Challenge


The three-day think tank began with an education for the globe-trotting crowd: the greenhouse gas challenge in an energy-dependent province. After what was essentially Alberta Energy 101, the teacher had a one-question quiz for the group: how do you solve the problem of greenhouses gases in the province with a solution that could be applied not only in Alberta but anywhere in the world? Days of conversation, debate and even arguments left the group creeping closer to the answer, which lay just outside McDougall’s home in Edmonton’s sprawling river valley.


The guests headed home to further ponder the problem while McDougall stumbled into another stimulating talk with a young scientist while both were waiting for flights at the airport in Ottawa. He told McDougall the solution lay in Mother Nature and her biological building blocks. He explained you had to take extremophiles, break down their genetic code and then build them back up with the help of other molecules to form new products. Aha!


McDougall immediately began to assemble a team to piece together the Bio-Conversion Databank Foundation (BioDF) with a mandate to take a waste product poured into Mother Nature and then use Mother Nature to turn that waste into something of value. “The element of public good spurs us on,” says McDougall, the President of Bio-Conversion. “There is an incredible need to do something like this and nobody has done it like this. What does it have to be like to work? The market demands economic development and problem solving focused on the needs of the outside world. Any solution has to be huge, cheap, energy-efficient and, ultimately, commodity-based. This is a classic case of turning lemons into lemonade.”

BioDF is in the process of becoming a global hub of credible knowledge associated with bioconversion building blocks for the reduction of greenhouse gases. It’s based on identifying, pursuing and optimizing natural functional systems found in nature; it will search for, identify, document, evaluate, understand and model the characteristics, genetics, physical and chemical functions, and living environment influencing the development and evolution of bio-organisms associated with capturing, processing, transforming and utilizing matter.

It begins with the building of a ‘digital commons’ which will house data, technology and expertise in a number of disciplines. For example, you will be able to find everything you need to know about extremophiles that love to consume molecules associated with greenhouse gas effects and survive in extreme environments, such as oil sands tailings ponds. BioDF’s Chief Technical Officer, working with partner institutions, will drill down into extremophiles’ genetic composition, determining what they digest and what they excrete. All those genetic indicators will be entered into the databank to act as compasses for future research. Alongside those models are the breakdowns of other molecules that could act as helpful building blocks to construct something new. Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning will fast track the analysis of the offerings of Mother Nature and test various combinations.


All the people at BioDF know the solutions will be a result of a massive team effort. Thus, the open source format. One of BioDF’s Founding Directors, Quinn Goretzky, has always been attracted to the idea of a ‘data commons.’ “You can provide that intelligence on this platform so minds from multiple disciplines can work on the problem and can collectively come to solutions,” adds Goretzky, who has more than 20 years of experience in technology development and international business. “We will also create challenges open to both experts and novices. Citizen science is a big part of this.”

People in the biological research field see these kinds of resources made accessible and affordable to anyone as a game-changer, a huge opportunity for anyone to create a profound impact in the world.


Tools from Four Pillars


Microorganisms, molecules, and pathways — databases, taxonomy, catalogues, websites, knowledge-sharing platforms, research and development projects and programs.


Community building — a multi-disciplinary bio-conversion community of contributors, experts, enthusiasts and advisors including scientists, engineers, AI developers, bio-hackers and more to collect, input, evaluate, store, share, network and communicate information on bio-conversion organisms.


Software and tools — a centre of knowledge for identifying, evaluating and developing organisms, models and building blocks to support the development of bio-conversion processes and industries.


Labs and facilities — facilities and expertise for storing and curating biological organisms and samples, DNA analysis, modelling, genetics, prototyping, product development and commercialization.


McDougall likens the databank to a LEGO set. “BioDF will be a knowledge centre, providing biological LEGO blocks to a host of bio-industrial commercial enterprises which, in turn, can assemble the blocks into technology platforms, bioprocesses and bio-production systems addressing specific industrial applications.” The reference to specific industrial applications is critical. The entire BioDF team is driven by beginning with the end in mind — and then working backwards. Members identify usable by-products — anything from food to building materials — and then determine what kind of genetic equation, including the use of the molecules in greenhouse gases, will be needed to build the product.

Applications

Could it, indeed, feed the hungry? “Absolutely!” says Geoffrey Shmigelsky, BioDF’s AI Evangelist. Shmigelsky, who has a Masters in Computer Science and an impressive legacy in start-ups, says the beautiful thing about bio is its scaleness. “The great thing about AI is it provides human-like intelligence at scale. It automates what humans have been doing for years and fast tracks it at a speed greater than ever. For example, in protein folding, analog processes that once many months can be approximated in silicon in a matter of hours. People don’t realize the applications with AI and Genetics are all there — it’s an enormous opportunity. You just need the imagination to do it.”

Like the GHG problem it aims to solve, the solution must also be large. Anything down at the micro-level only becomes useful once it can be scaled up in a significant fashion to have a real impact in the real world. Large scale means one billion tonnes or more of GHG annually. It must also be low energy, requiring minimal levels of added incremental conventional energy. Obviously, anything of value must be produced cost-effectively. Massive-scale suggests primary commodities such as food, animal feed, fertilizers, building materials, vitamins and fuels as high-value by-products.


The impact of it being scalable is not only the massive positive benefit it delivers for the environment. In addition, each commercial enterprise is likely to employ hundreds of people in food and nutrition, fuels, bioremediation, resource production and building materials. The knowledge and IP they develop will provide a foundation for developing product and services exports.


“We’re recycling greenhouse gases,” adds Shmigelsky —


“We’re taking a molecule that is low energy and, with careful chemistry, we’re putting it into a higher energy state and making it useful. I always thought politics would never solve this problem. It’s always been too polarized and there are too many vested interests. A technical solution is the only solution.“

While the BioDF is headquartered in Edmonton, there will be a network of primary biobanks across Canada to provide security and redundancy. This primary network will engage widely with others around the world as appropriate. BioDF and academic partners will collect samples, undertake genetic analysis, and maintain organisms of interest. BioDF will collaborate with leaders in the field to develop taxonomy, biological models, and apply AI and machine learning for developing tailored organisms.

— written by the team at BioDF

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