From CSIRO (AU) ECOS : “Can engineering biology feed more people with fewer resources?” 

From CSIRO (AU) ECOS

9.26.22
Sibel Korhaliller

A changing climate, declining arable lands and an increasing demand for more environmentally friendly products is making us think outside the box when it comes to food production and traditional agricultural production. How can we produce more food with fewer resources?

One way this can be achieved is through what is known as engineering biology. It combines the fields of biology and engineering to create safer, more sustainable, and in time, potentially cheaper products. These include feed ingredients, agricultural chemicals and even biofuels.

Last year we released a Synthetic Biology Roadmap that estimated products made using engineering biology could generate more than $19.2 billion for Australia’s food and agricultural industry by 2040.

While there has been a lot of research in this space over the past two decades, commercialization opportunities are still in their infancy. But understanding what these are can help the sector prioritize their efforts in the short to medium term.

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Engineering biology techniques could benefit Australia’s agriculture, aquaculture (pictured) and forestry industries over the next 10 years.

Revolutionizing agriculture

To feed everyone on the planet, we need to revolutionise agriculture in the next 30 years.

Greg Williams is Associate Director for Health and Biosecurity in the CSIRO Futures team, CSIRO’s strategic consulting arm. He says engineering biology can help us address the increasing pressures that global agriculture producers face.

“Engineering biology solutions are one way we can help keep our food systems resilient to future demand. However, we still have a lot to learn to move the science out of the lab and onto farms for real-world impact,” he says.

Engineering biology opportunities on farm

We recently explored eight key engineering biology opportunities for the agriculture industry as part of research funded by AgriFutures Australia, who invest in research, innovation and learning across Australian rural industries.

“We explored both research and commercial applications of this technology globally to assess what Australia’s agriculture and aquaculture sectors could start to prepare for,” Greg says.

“The applications range from biosensors that detect pathogens in livestock or disease in crops, to biomanufacturing sustainable proteins and additives that can be added to animal feed, to creating agricultural chemicals, such as insecticides or fertilisers.”

One of these opportunities involves engineering biological agricultural treatments to create new crops that can fix their own nitrogen for growth. In doing so, this helps to overcome environmental challenges in conventional agricultural practices, such as the overuse of nitrogen fertilizer.

On the Sunshine Coast, we have also supported a local company, Provectus Algae through the Australian Government’s Innovation Connections program to synthetically produce algae for several applications, including food and beverage (natural and sustainable food flavourings, fragrances and colourings), aquaculture feed, natural pesticides and also therapeutics (such as medicines).

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Biofungicides are new microbial-derived tools for protecting crops such as canola.

CSIRO researcher Louise Thatcher says a collaboration with Melbourne-based business Nufarm is helping to develop and run a pre-commercial pilot trial of a novel biofungicide to prevent sclerotina outbreaks.

“Fungal diseases of crops cause billions of dollars of losses globally,” Louise says.

“Part of what I do at CSIRO is to find alternative solutions to the use of synthetic agrichemicals. These chemicals contribute to increased yields but can have negative impacts on the environment.

“We’re screening and researching a collection of beneficial microbes that could kill fungal diseases that affect crops such as canola.

“A product from this research would be engineered to maximise effectiveness against sclerotinia whilst minimising off target effects to the environment and people.

“We were able to successfully isolate a new biocontrol microbe that is found naturally in West Australia soils. We engineered a new biofungicide formulation and tested its application to treat sclerotinia outbreaks, with very positive results to far.”

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We are evaluating biofungicides to supress sclerotinia in canola.

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CSIRO -Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (AU) , is Australia’s national science agency and one of the largest and most diverse research agencies in the world.

CSIRO works with leading organisations around the world. From its headquarters in Canberra, CSIRO maintains more than 50 sites across Australia and in France, Chile and the United States, employing about 5,500 people.

Federally funded scientific research began in Australia 104 years ago. The Advisory Council of Science and Industry was established in 1916 but was hampered by insufficient available finance. In 1926 the research effort was reinvigorated by establishment of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which strengthened national science leadership and increased research funding. CSIR grew rapidly and achieved significant early successes. In 1949 further legislated changes included renaming the organisation as CSIRO.

Notable developments by CSIRO have included the invention of atomic absorption spectroscopy; essential components of Wi-Fi technology; development of the first commercially successful polymer banknote; the invention of the insect repellent in Aerogard and the introduction of a series of biological controls into Australia, such as the introduction of myxomatosis and rabbit calicivirus for the control of rabbit populations.

Research and focus areas

Research Business Units

As at 2019, CSIRO’s research areas are identified as “Impact science” and organised into the following Business Units:

Agriculture and Food
Health and Biosecurity
Data 61
Energy
Land and Water
Manufacturing
Mineral Resources
Oceans and Atmosphere

National Facilities

CSIRO manages national research facilities and scientific infrastructure on behalf of the nation to assist with the delivery of research. The national facilities and specialized laboratories are available to both international and Australian users from industry and research. As at 2019, the following National Facilities are listed:
Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL)
Australia Telescope National Facility – radio telescopes included in the Facility include the Australia Telescope Compact Array, the Parkes Observatory, Mopra Radio Telescope Observatory and the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder.

STCA CSIRO Australia Compact Array (AU), six radio telescopes at the Paul Wild Observatory, is an array of six 22-m antennas located about twenty five kilometres (16 mi) west of the town of Narrabri in Australia.

CSIRO-Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (AU) Parkes Observatory [Murriyang, the traditional Indigenous name], located 20 kilometres north of the town of Parkes, New South Wales, Australia, 414.80m above sea level.

NASA Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, AU, Deep Space Network. Credit: NASA.

CSIRO Canberra campus.

ESA DSA 1, hosts a 35-metre deep-space antenna with transmission and reception in both S- and X-band and is located 140 kilometres north of Perth, Western Australia, near the town of New Norcia.

CSIRO-Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (AU)CSIRO R/V Investigator.

UK Space NovaSAR-1 satellite (UK) synthetic aperture radar satellite.

CSIRO Pawsey Supercomputing Centre AU)

Magnus Cray XC40 supercomputer at Pawsey Supercomputer Centre Perth Australia.

Galaxy Cray XC30 Series Supercomputer at at Pawsey Supercomputer Centre Perth Australia.

Pausey Supercomputer CSIRO Zeus SGI Linux cluster.

Others not shown

SKA

SKA- Square Kilometer Array.

SKA Square Kilometre Array low frequency at Murchison Widefield Array, Boolardy station in outback Western Australia on the traditional lands of the Wajarri peoples.

EDGES telescope in a radio quiet zone at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in Western Australia, on the traditional lands of the Wajarri peoples.