Bioprocessing's Key Role Today and Thousands of Years Ago

Bioprocess engineering is known by many names: biochemical engineering, biotechnology engineering and even biotechnical engineering. 

Whatever the name, it's referring to the process of using biologic materials to develop new process, products and by-products. 

Ironically, with all of the cutting edge technology deployed in the field today, bioprocess engineering has been around for thousands of years. 

That’s right, thousands. 

Back then it was a way to make food, drinks and even medicine. Think about it. 

More than 8,000 years ago, bioprocess engineering was used to make leavened bread. Move forward a few thousand years and you find that moldy soybean curd was used to treat skin infections in China. The malting of barley and fermentation of beer were practiced in Egypt in 2500 BC. Monks refined the process in Europe 2,000 years later. 

But the really famous use for bioprocess engineering came much more recently. In 1857, Louis Pasteur proved that the organism that ferments sugar into alcohol, yeast, is actually a living cell. Twenty years later he showed that some types of bacteria could be used to kill anthrax cells. 

In 1928, Alexander Fleming showed that growing colonies of Penicillium notatum could be used to kill Staphylococcus cultures. 

But here’s where bioprocessing really hits home. 

In the late 1950s and into the 1960s, researchers used the enzyme glucose isomerase to enrich the fructose content in corn syrup from 42% to 55%. When a taste test sponsored by a soft drink company found that consumers liked the taste, (and even preferred it) high fructose corn syrup became a major sweetener in many popular products. The rest is history. 

Bioprocess engineering is still being used to develop new medicines, while also being used to create new sources of energy such as ethanol. It is also being used to create polymers, and other chemicals that have traditionally been produced from fossil fuels such as oil, coal and natural gas. 

And to think it all started with bread and beer.

—Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on North Carolina Science Now, a weekly science series that airs Wednesdays, beginning in August 2013, as part of North Carolina Now on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog! 

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