Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Prof. Francis Mulaa and other researchers are involved in a project titled “Enzyme Bioprospecting-SL”

What is the enzyme bioprospecting project about?

Bioprospecting is a component of a much bigger program. The project is focusing on how biotechnology, in this case microorganisms and enzymes, can be used in industrial and environmental applications. For the environmental applications, the word used is biological remediation in other words, if the environment is found to be degraded, can it be restored to its natural or original form using either enzymes or microorganisms?

What are the objectives of this project?

One of the objectives of the project is to prospect for microorganisms.  A microorganism is very tiny; it cannot be seen and one needs to figure out where to find it, within the bigger world we occupy.  For example, within the University, we are surrounded by water, soils, flora and fauna, and we always believe that we can obtain the enzymes we need for applications, however, this can take centuries. What we have done then is develop technologies for screening the water, flora and fauna, very fast and rapidly, additionally with a higher chance of getting the expected results. One technique in use, is the High Through Put Technique, developed for several years now and which uses environmental, biotechnology techniques and normally is a combination of traditional screening, with DNA screening, which renders the process fast and accurate.

With the technology, we can screen from a billion microorganisms and find the one we are looking for in 24 hours. But we also use knowledge from literature to help identify environmental spots where we are likely to find a microorganism. The screening, search and identification of microorganisms is first intended as academic enquiry, to find out if there are any new microorganisms and to direct conservation efforts, screening also helps to analyze if the microorganisms are disappearing and to identify newly emerging microorganisms.  Where the microorganisms cannot be conserved in the environment, they can be conserved in a databank so that when need arises for supply of organisms to study, then the data bank can be accessed and organisms’ information retrieved.

The bioprospecting project has several tracts; the first tract is bioprospecting for microorganisms for use in agriculture, largely in crop protection. This aspect is being conducted in a partnership with Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS), Moi University, Rivertex in Eldoret, and Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT).  

Tract two is a working collaboration with the international Centre r for Insect Physiology and Ecology, (ICIPE), Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute (KIRDI) and two local companies for the development and commercializing of products. The collaboration is a consortium of partner industries, crop industries and academia, and works in such a way that there should be teams developing a product, while others pilot the product and on achieving successful trials, there are teams to take up the technologies.

We are encouraged that Rivertex is interested in enzymes for the textile industry and two other local companies based in Thika are interested in the crop protection. This gives us the reason and the motivation to do carry out the prospecting or screening and developing of the microorganism into a technology. Suffice to note that the textile industry does not want the microorganism but rather, they want the product of the microorganism which is the enzyme secreted from those microorganisms. The companies that are interested in. Crop protection on the other hand, want the secretions but not the enzymes, rather, they want the natural products which offers protection to the crop and can kill the offending organisms such as fungi or insects.

One of the other uses for enzyme is in environmental remediation. We are using enzymes to develop technologies for the next generation of tanneries. In the future, tanneries should be less polluting of the environment and less wasting of products such that the hides will be much more valuable than the meat to the extent that it should be possible to give away the meat for free.  Enzymes can be used to develop technologies that process the hides. In this regards we have developed two patents with that technology; the patents are local and international, and we are looking towards upscaling and roll out the technology country wide. We have signed an agreement with the county of Kajiado and if we are able to scale up the process, then the County will implement the technology in some of their local tanneries and slaughter houses.

We have developed the enzyme bit, to a high capacity, albeit the only limitation is that we lack the engineering capability to scale up. We boast of a very good science, recognized by world standards, and in fact we are recognized by international standards and authority’s screening for enzymes.

Who are the researchers and collaborators?

We have largely been screening the soda lake environment; Lake Bogoria, Lake Magadi and Lake Elementaita. Part of the reason is because the United Nation Environmental Program (UNEP) Global Environmental Program, (UNEP) and Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) have funded us to conduct prospecting, this is largely the reason why the project is ongoing. We believe that we are impacting on the communities and the counties where the soda lakes are located. There is need to conserve the environment because it has much more value than the soda ash and indeed part of that value is in the microorganisms and their enormous potential for technology rather than the Magadi itself.

By prospecting, and publishing our results, we are drawing the community to appreciate and value what resources they have and how they lose if they are not able to immediately exploit it, to conserve it until they have the capacity and capability.  We also use prospecting and publication as tools for training students on what technology or biotechnology actually is especially in relation to biodiversity conservation. Further, to nuance this new era of bio economy which is as huge as the blue economy. These are the two big economies emerging and all of them are biological.

How is the project going to benefit the university and the community including industry?

The University is already a beneficiary because we have been able to procure unique, advanced research equipment, advancing our capability, albeit at the laboratory level, scale we are hoping to upscale our capacity.  We are   happy to report that we have a project, funded by the Swedish Government to scale up our laboratory and despite a few hitches, we are hopeful of realizing our vision to commercialize the technology.

We have published a book on next generation tanneries titled ‘Alkaliphilic Enzymes and Their Applications in Novel Leather Processing Technology for Next-Generation Tanneries. Advances in Biochemical Engineering/Biotechnology, 2019)’. According to the results, we can achieve pollution free tanneries to the extent that there will be no need to zone the tanneries region. Secondly, and most important is that we should be to use the whole hide, without a single loss. Here, the hair, the fat, the various layers of the skin and the hide itself which can be turned into high quality leather, can be put to use. This same enzyme technology used in tanneries can be used in developing detergents, and in crop protection. The Breweries have already embraced the technology in brewing, and while the e applications are very diverse, still, the microorganisms need to be developed, tested at laboratory scale, piloted and produced in stages of above 1000 liters. The equipment in use at each stage is expensive therefore we cannot invest in the technology until all the results are provided and deemed promising.

There are also protocols, rules and regulations that govern those types of technologies in the realm of biosecurity and biosafety. We are obliged to comply with these, to test the technology and get certification from the Government so that the product is safe for household use.

What motivated the project team on bioprospecting on enzymes?

The motivation is long and premised on work carried out by the PI. In 1994, the PI developed an interest in technology in RNA work.   However, at the time the technology and resources that existed would not allow them to continue RNA work and therefore begun thinking and strategizing using biotechnology or molecular biology, and with knowledge and the skills acquired, to develop the local technologies.

Pharmacia, which is one of the leaders in biotechnology and is a Swedish company with branches in the USA and Promega, got interested in what the PI wanted to do. Through interactions with them, there was reshaping of the mind and ideas, not just from the theoretical angle but also from the technological angle, because the company was already basically deriving its products from enzyme applications. Pharmacia promised to finance the initial work developed by the PI, and after the   PI developed a proposal, it was noted that there was no infrastructure capacity in Kenya, to develop a product. However, because the PI already had   the idea and had more insight into what capabilities were available, they   applied to the Swedish Government for a small grant to support them as a new and upcoming scientist; the grant enabled the PI to slowly develop the technology

Along the way and in time, because the world had not gone in that direction, Pharmacia realized that the PI could not continue with the work to continue with the work along that line because they lacked   the capability. Instead of funding research, they decided to fund capacity building. In the initial years from 1998 they funded Masters, and then PhD students, giving the project the human capacity as well as finally funding for the equipment i.e. the infrastructure. This phase was funded through a program called Biotechnology East African Network (BIO-EARN). Phase two is a product of development funded through a program called Bio-innovate, where we are encouraged to use the innovation for product development. This is the phase that the project is at now, thanks to   a long term continuous funding activity of the Swedish government.