An alarming increase in the earth’s human population has led to a decline in natural ecosystems and also changes can be seen in the balance of natural cycles. This has imposed a negative impact on both humans and other living organisms. Thus, abundant scientific evidence shows that humanity is living unsustainably and returning human use of natural resources back to the environment will require a major collective effort. Given the challenges of population increase and obvious problems of pollution increase, biotechnology remains the most reliable means for achieving environmental sustainability.
A healthy environment is one that provides vital goods and services to humans as well as other organisms within its ecosystem. To build a flourishing environment, different ways need to be discovered for reducing negative human impact and enhancing the well-being and vitality of all living organisms. Criteria for ecological sustainability should be :
-the rate of harvest should not exceed the rate of regeneration
-for nonrenewable resources, there should be equivalent development of renewable substitutes
-the waste generation should not exceed the assimilative capacity of the environment.
Pollution prevention is the need of the hour
We all know that a considerable amount of the pollutants in the environment are directly or indirectly the waste generated from industrial activities. Government, environmentalists, and communities for a long time have been frowning at the degradation of the environment due to man-made pollutants especially those that are by-products of industries. Industries, on the other hand, are under pressure by their communities to minimize the pollutants they generate. This has placed the manufacturing industries at a high cost of revenue for pollution treatment as well as Incurring a huge cost for research into eco-friendly ways of manufacturing processes which could minimize pollution generation or discharge into the environment, that is air, land, and water. The best way to prevent pollution is the reduction of waste at the source itself, substituting less harmful substances for hazardous materials and eliminating toxic substances from the production process. By implementing pollution prevention practices, companies often reduce their operational waste disposal and compliance costs.
The integration of natural sciences and engineering in order to achieve the application of organisms, cells, parts thereof and molecular analogs for the protection and restoration of the quality of our environment is what is called environmental biotechnology. The most acceptable solution to the generated wastes in the environment is such that it will conveniently integrate them back into the environment. This method involves the use of microorganisms usually yeasts, bacteria or fungi as a whole-cell usage production system or in the form of industrial enzymes. In many cases these microorganisms or their products are integrated into the substrates which give us the products, desired in the industries, examples of these are biomining, bio detergent, biotreatment of pulp, bioremediation, biofiltration, aquaculture treatments, biotreatment of textiles, biocatalysts, biomass fuel production, biomonitoring so on and so forth. These are biotechnological tools, which could solve the problem of pollution and help sustain the environment. These biotechnology tools have long been used in many developed countries in the world such as the United States, Finland, Sweden, Germany, Japan, and others. Africa is still lagging from being integrated into these environmental sustainability best practices. Nigeria is the focus on how to begin to make use of these bio tools for the improvement of the badly degraded environment.
Back in the 60s, Danish biotech giant Novozymes was the first one to sell enzymatic detergents. They consist of specialized enzymes obtained from microorganisms that are able to break down molecules behind difficult stains, such as blood and fat. And unlike chemical alternatives, enzymatic detergents are biodegradable. Over time, new generations of enzymatic detergents have become more and more effective. A key advantage is that they can even work at lower temperatures. This can significantly reduce the amount of energy spent on washing clothes. These enzymatic detergents account for about a 50% share of the laundry detergent market.
The success of the new bio solvents and detergents are limited since they are more expensive than traditional products. But as governments start to use taxation to stimulate the use of renewable resources, the economic viability of bio solvents could improve. Increased use of bio solvents and bio detergents will stimulate demand for the raw materials used to manufacture the new products and so help farmers by creating a new outlet for their produce. The new solvents and detergents being developed will have a much less detrimental effect than existing products on the health of those making and using them. Less dependence on non-renewable resources, safeguarding human health, protecting the environment from chemical pollutants seeping into aquatic body and atmosphere, agricultural product and job creation are the benefits accruable due to this bio tool innovation.
Various chemicals generated by the modem technologies are posing a great threat to the natural breakdown processes and the natural mechanisms of maintaining ecological balance. Many of these pollutants are complex in nature and are hence difficult to break down. Such pollutants are accumulating in the natural environment at an alarming rate. The application of biotechnology has helped in the environmental management of such hazardous contaminants by bioremediation. This process is also referred to as bio-restoration or bio-treatment. Bioremediation involves the use of naturally existing microorganisms to speed up the breaking down of biological substances and degradation of various materials. This process adds substantial momentum to the process of cleaning up. The basic principle of bioremediation is the breaking down of organic contaminants into simple organic compounds like carbon dioxide, water, salts, and other harmless products. Bioremediation can help clean up the environment by Promoting microbial growth in the soil that can be achieved by the addition of nutrients. The microbes acclimatize themselves to these toxic wastes (so-called nutrients) and over a period of time, the microbes use up these compounds, thus degrading these pollutants.
Of late, plants are also being used to clean up metal infested sites. These plants absorb the metals in their vacuoles. This process is referred to as Phytoremediation. The metals can be recovered by burning the plants. This practice of growing such trees near the industrial plants that release heavy metals in the environment has proved extremely effective.
This is a pollution control technique employing the use of living material to capture and biologically degrading pollutants. Common uses of biofiltration processes are for processing wastewater, capturing harmful chemicals or silt from surface runoff, and macrobiotic oxidation of contaminants in the air. In multimedia-multiphase bioremediation, waste streams containing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) may be treated with combinations of phases, that is, solid media, gas, and liquid flow incomplete biological systems. These systems are classified as three basic types: biofilters, bio trickling filters, and bio scrubbers. Biofilms of microorganisms (bacteria and fungi) are grown on porous media in biofilters and bio trickling systems.
Plastic pollution is one of the major environmental issues we’re currently facing. Both the waste from petrochemical plastic production plants and the many tonnes of non-biodegradable plastic that is thrown away daily are huge problems for the environment. New technologies to incorporate biology in the production of plastics could offer a more sustainable alternative. In Amsterdam, Avantium is developing methods to produce 100% recyclable bioplastics from agricultural and forestry waste. The company is working with Coca Cola and Danone to produce sustainable bottles and yogurt cups. Over in France, the company Carbios is working on recycling commonly used plastics using microbial enzymes, in collaboration with brands such as L’Oreal, Pepsi and Nestlé Waters. Other companies developing bioplastics are Corbion Purac and Synbra in the Netherlands and Futerro in France.
Fossil fuels are the biggest culprit behind air pollution, which is estimated to kill millions of people each year. In recent years, biofuels produced from crops have become an increasingly common alternative. However, these crops are starting to compete for agricultural land, which can contribute to deforestation and rising food prices.
Several companies are going back to the natural ability of some microorganisms to break down agricultural or forestry waste to produce fuels. This is one of the goals of the French company Global Bioenergies, which is working with Audi to produce gasoline from sustainable sources, or the Swiss Clariant in collaboration with ExxonMobil. Other companies such as Solaga in Germany and AlgaEnergy in Spain are researching how to produce fuels from sunlight and carbon dioxide using algae.
Among the oldest industries in the world, mining is the source of alarming levels of environmental pollution. Modem biotechnology is now being used to improve the environment surrounding mining areas through various microorganisms. For instance, a bacterium Thiobacillus ferroxidase has been used to back out copper from mine tailings. This has also helped in improving recovery. This bacterium is naturally present in certain sulfur-containing materials and can be used to oxidize inorganic compounds like copper sulfide minerals. This process releases acid and oxidizing solutions of ferric ions that can wash out metals from the crude ore. These bacteria chew up the ore and release copper that can subsequently be collected. Such methods of bio-processing account for almost a quarter of the total copper production world-over. Bio-processing is also used to extract metals like gold from very low-grade sulfidic gold ores. Biotechnology also offers the means of improving the efficiency of biomining, by developing bacterial strains that can withstand high temperatures. This helps these bacteria survive the bio-processing which generates a lot of heat.
A wide range of biological methods is in use today to detect pollution and for the continuous monitoring of pollutants. These techniques of biotechnology have novel methods for diagnosing environmental problems and assessing normal environmental conditions so that human beings can be better- informed about their surroundings. Applications of these methods are cheaper, faster and also portable. More use of such methods will help the environment achieve sustainability.