BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium - Industrial biotechnology could account for 60 percent of fine chemicals production worldwide by 2010, according to a report released last week by the Royal Belgian Academy Council of Applied Science.

And if European governments were more supportive, European industry could take a major share in exploiting this "white biotechnology," suggested Erick Vandamme, head of the laboratory of industrial microbiology at Belgium's Ghent University, and one of the report's authors. But, he said, presenting the report in Brussels, "It's now or never."

The report outlines the opportunities from the advanced use of renewable raw materials, such as sugar beets, wheat or corn instead of petroleum, natural gas and coal. In addition to chemicals, pharmaceuticals and vitamins, realistic possibilities now exist for industrial biotechnology to produce solvents, bioplastics, food additives, pesticides, enzymes and biofuels such as bioethanol and biodiesel, it claimed.

"Now, for the first time, there is a technical capacity, through the use of genetic modification, and for the first time it is commercially competitive, because for the first time agricultural raw materials are cheaper than petrol," said Wim Soetart, the report's co-author.

The risk for Europe, Soetart said, is that yet again the U.S. has woken up sooner, and the European Union still has no consistent policy in the area. The report recommends the creation of a "technology platform for industrial biotechnology" at national and at European level.

The Belgian minister for economy, energy and science, Fientje Moerman, responded immediately to the report by promising support for the creation of a Belgian Interdisciplinary Platform for Industrial Biotechnology.

The European biotechnology industry greeted the minister's announcement with enthusiasm. "This is excellent news. It will help the Belgian chemical industry to adopt the latest technologies and to keep the sector as one of the leading industries in our economy," said Dirk Carrez, secretary general of BelgoBiotech, the Belgian biotechnology industry association. And Hugo Schepens, secretary general of EuropaBio, said he hoped the report "will better inform politicians and the public about how industrial biotech products offer significant ecological benefits and frequently show technical performance benefits."

EU Launches Bid To Increase Basic Research

The European Union launched a new strategy last week to boost European support for basic research - with biotechnology as one of the key sectors identified as needing more backing. A formal position from European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin pointed to the gaps in the current European provision, and to the scope for improvement.

Europe seriously lags the U.S. in basic research of value for medicine, and particularly the basic life sciences, the commissioner said. Worse, he said, Europe offers a less attractive environment for researchers - so even many of those that Europe trains at a high level still choose to pursue their career in the U.S. The EU offers some support for basic research in molecular biology and the basic mechanisms of genetics and genomics, for instance, through the European Molecular Biology Organisation and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory. But that is too limited, Busquin said

Improved funding would help, he said, but would not be enough. Europe needs to strengthen its research infrastructures, create centers of excellence that combine public and private funding from national and European sources, increase researcher training and improve international coordination.

Busquin made clear his belief in the merit of basic research. He offered as one of his key examples the discovery of restriction enzymes, providing biotechnology with a universal tool. And while "the empirical and clinical approach continues to play a determining role" in life sciences research, "we know, too, that further progress can be expected in this area from work often of a very basic nature in the field of genomics and the neurosciences." His plan is to provoke a scientific and political debate that would lead by the end of 2004 to concrete proposals for more EU support to basic research.

Authorization Of GM Maize Delayed Again

The European Union again has hesitated over authorizing transgenic Bt11 sweetcorn from the Swiss company Syngenta AG.

A Jan. 13 meeting of the European Commission failed even to agree on the procedure for granting an authorization, and the EU's four-year de facto moratorium on GM authorizations, therefore, remains in place. France is continuing to claim that Sygenta's safety trials in support of the application were inadequate. The commission decided only to reconsider the matter at a further meeting on Jan. 28 - and it is still unclear whether the commission will be able to break the deadlock imposed by EU member states in 1999 on any new authorizations.

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