Cell-Free Bioproduction

Fraunhofer Lighthouse Project »Cell-Free Bioproduction«

Proteins: A High-Growth Market

Proteins are the building blocks of every cell. These biomolecules are an essential element not only of many medical and pharmaceutical products but also in the food, agriculture, cosmetics, and detergent industries. For instance, proteins can serve as the basis of a vaccine, since they can carry antigens of a virus and stimulate the body’s immune system to produce antibodies to combat the pathogen. With vaccines it is always important to react quickly to mutations in viruses and to make sure that the appropriate vaccine is made available in sufficient quantities.

Conventional techniques rely on living cells or organisms such as the bacterium E.coli to produce the required proteins. This method has a variety of disadvantages. For one, a lot of energy is consumed in cell metabolism and by the subsequent purification required to obtain the product. What’s more, when seeking to produce toxic proteins there is always the danger that these toxins will destroy their host cells – which makes it hard to turn this method of producing biomolecules into an efficient and economically viable industrial-scale process.

The Innovation – Cellfree Protein Synthesis

The in-vitro method is much more efficient, as this technique does not rely on living cells to synthesize proteins. Fraunhofer researchers in the areas of life sciences, physics, mechanical and process engineering are collaborating on Fraunhofer’s lighthouse project Cell-Free Bioproduction. Their goal is to develop a new industrial process for cell-free bioproduction based on an innovative reactor concept. This major project brings together the expertise of eight Fraunhofer Institutes.

What they hope this reactor concept will deliver is a system of flexibly deployable modules capable of synthesizing proteins on a grand scale. For active control of the production of tailored molecules, the researchers are working on developing techniques that have already proved themselves in industrial application. One of the big challenges is supplying cells with chemical energy. Whereas living cells feature cellular power plants of their own in the form of mitochondria, in the reactor this role is played by technology. All in all, the reactor concept means that biomolecules can be produced cost-effectively while preserving resources and producing a relatively small amount of biological waste.

According to the project schedule, initial testing of the individual modules will be carried out in 2013, with the first demonstrator complete in 2014. However, researchers and experts reckon that it will be a few years yet before the reactor finds widespread industrial application, since they must first solve the issue of how to provide a continuous supply of energy.

Fraunhofer Lighthouse Project Cell-Free Bioproduction

Fraunhofer’s lighthouse project Cell-Free Bioproduction is part of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research BMBF’s Biotechnology 2020+ strategy process. What sets it apart from other research initiatives is its industrial orientation and focus on producing biomolecules cost-effectively, since techniques are already being optimized for industrial mass production while research is still underway. Researchers are striving to bring biotechnology and engineering even closer together, so that they can develop new production processes and make existing methods more resource-efficient, cost-effective, and eco-friendly.