Environmental biotech: Innovative research environment

By Melissa Trudinger
Tuesday, 18 June, 2002

In the first two rounds of Biotechnology Innovation Fund (BIF) grants, five companies with a clearly environmental slant obtained funding. In the first round, these included Pestat, which is commercialising immunocontraceptive mechanisms developed by the CRC for biological control of pest animals, and Orica Australia, which is developing enzyme-based methods for pesticide degradation.

In the second round of BIF grants, ToxiTech received funding to develop biosensors to detect algal toxins in seafood and water, Biosignal is developing a class of chemicals to prevent biofilming, and Flinders Bioremediation is using microbes in the bioremediation of coal tar derivatives.

Dr Nick McClure, Managing Director of Flinders Bioremediation, says that the company is developing a patented process involving bacteria and fungi to break down a highly toxic coal tar chemical.

"No one has ever achieved consistent bioremediation of this compound in soils," he says.

McClure says the company hopes to show efficacy within a year, after completing pilot and full-scale studies.

Flinders Bioremediation already does a lot of business both in Australia and overseas in cleaning up sites and developing methods to treat organic wastes. The company is a spin-off from Flinders University and is still wholly owned by the university.

According to McClure, one of the main advantages of bioremediation is the low cost - once the process has been set up it is self-sustaining. It takes longer than chemical remediation, however, and its results can be inconsistent.

"Bioremediation has a very high acceptance," McClure says. "Most processes don't use engineered organisms and it is considered to be environmentally friendly."

A different type of environmental biotechnology is practised by Prof Staffan Kjelleberg at the University of New South Wales' Centre for Marine Bio-fouling and Bio-innovation.

An interest in the chemical communication between microorganisms and how this leads to surface colonisation led Kjelleberg and his team to identify a class of molecules called furanones, which act as antagonists for the bacterial communication system.

By inhibiting bacterial communication, furanones inhibit the formation of biofilms, or bacterial surface colonisation.

According to Kjelleberg, 12 patents covering the mode of action, synthesis, targets and applications of furanones have been filed.

Field tests From this research, Biosignal was spun out. The company is commercialising a number of applications for the compounds. First off the blocks is a non-toxic marine anti-fouling paint, developed in collaboration with Wattyl paints.

"We have field-tested the paints for aquaculture equipment in Australia and Norway," says CEO Michael Oredsson. More field tests are in process.

Oredsson says there is an interesting window of opportunity in marine applications due to the international phase-out of highly toxic tin-based paints starting next year.

Biosignal's furanone-based products are non-toxic and biodegradable. According to Oredsson, one advantage is that the compounds simply inhibit biofilming, and do not kill the microorganism. In some cases they also prevent the expression of virulence factors.

In addition to preventing marine biofouling, furanones have a wide range of applications ranging from industrial to pharmaceutical. Biosignal is also working on detergents and surface cleaners, as well as a number of pharmaceutical and biomedical applications.

"In every single application, there are environmental upsides to using furanones," Oredsson claims, saying that they have far less environmental impact than antibiotics and other microbicides.

Environmental biotechnology is also concerned with monitoring of the environment. Prof Duncan Veal at Macquarie University's Research Unit for Fluorimetric Applications in Biotechnology has developed methods for measuring Cryptosporidium and Giardia in water, using fluorescent techniques including fluorescent in situ hybridisation (FISH) and flow cytometry.

According to Veal, there are a huge range of compounds and organisms in the environment that researchers are interested in monitoring, such as hormone disrupting compounds or pathogenic bacteria.

"The work done in my laboratory is mainly about the development of simple methods for monitoring the environment," he says.

One focus of the group is the specific adaptation of medical instrumentation for rapid identification of organisms occurring at low concentrations in the environment. Veal explains that this allowed researchers to examine individual organisms, rather than the populations measured by traditional techniques.

Veal's group has also developed a new fluorophore with a long decay time that may be useful in measuring environmental samples.

Veal says that he is currently involved in applying for a BIF grant for a spin-off company commercialising the research from his group.

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