Norwich Research Park advances its Industrial Biotechnology strategy

“This is a very exciting time to be working in science’, comments Professor Anne Osbourn who has been appointed Director of the Norwich Research Park’s newly created Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy Alliance (IBBA).


Creating a sustainable bioeconomy for the UK is a key strategic objective within Government and Norwich Research Park is well placed to advance fundamental and applied research in this area.  The Alliance aims to create a portfolio of expertise from across the schools of the University of East Anglia and the research institutes based on the Park, and to facilitate greater interaction with industry.


Prof Osbourn, previously Associate Research Director at the John Innes Centre, explains that the Alliance will have three major strands: fermentation of agri-food chain by-products to produce commodity and speciality chemicals; plant and microbial natural products and natural products chemistry; and bioenergy which includes bioelectrocatalysis.


She says; “There are many emerging areas of work that have synergies across the Park and we will be pulling these together into a coherent strategy.


“For example, naturally occurring compounds have always been exploited by humans as sources of drugs, flavourings and fragrances but we are really only scratching the surface.


“The Norwich Research Park has a strong track record in natural products research, in particular antibiotics through its pioneering research into Streptomyces, which now accounts for over two-thirds of the clinically useful antibiotics of natural origin. This work is continuing with recent groundbreaking work in genomics.


“My background has been terpenes, the largest class of plant-derived natural products, which includes taxol (one of the most widely prescribed anticancer drugs) and artemisinin (the most potent antimalarial compound).  This group of compounds represents tremendous chemical diversity that has so far been only poorly accessed and utilised by industry.


“If we can generate a library of different terpene structures and identify their functions then we have the potential to create new types of high value chemicals. This will be one of the objectives for the new Alliance.”

Another important strand of the Alliance is biorefining and Professor Keith Waldron, of the Institute of Food Research (IFR); an expert in this area has been appointed Associate Director of IBBA. He heads up a team of scientists on the Norwich Research Park looking at how the by-products of the agri-food industry can be used to create ‘second generation biofuels’ and other renewable industrial biochemicals, an emerging area with huge potential.


Yeast fermentation is the basis for the global bioethanol industry, which has a current value of around US$80 billion, and is part of the production process for a range of industrially important chemicals.


An important driver for the industry is the move from the current use of starch towards the use of fermentable sugars derived from lignocellulosic waste materials. An example is the pulp left after the processing of sugar beet.  This still contains a high carbohydrate content, which is a good source of sugar for fermentation to ethanol and is relatively low in lignin, which means the treatment costs are lower.


Under Prof Waldron’s leadership, the IFR Biorefinery Centre based on the Park has installed a steam explosion pilot plant necessary for the pre-treatment of biomass prior to enzymatic release of sugars and fermentation. Together with the National Collection of Yeast Cultures (also housed at IFR) a programme of both fundamental and applied research is on-going in this economically important area.


For Prof. Osbourn the Alliance creates the potential to offer new career opportunities for the next generation of scientists.


“The development of a research and innovation campus on the Norwich Research Park offers opportunities for new types of collaboration between science and industry and I think that it will become an increasingly vibrant environment for young people entering the field. They will have the opportunity to become entrepreneurial in their thinking at an early stage.”


Clive Booles of LondonPharma agrees. His company, also based on the Norwich Research Park, is developing an innovative spray that delivers an antimalarial under the tongue for fast action.  It is based on the drug artemisinin, which is derived from a terpene.


“If the Alliance makes it easier for industry to collaborate with researchers it will help to build a critical mass of entrepreneurial activity on the Park.  There are benefits for us to be close to world-class scientists and developing an international profile for Industrial Biotechnology will facilitate interactions with potential funders and partners.”

©2015 Holdsworth Associates