Researchers across The University of Edinburgh are carrying out brilliant research in biotechnology, demonstrating the University’s knowledge and expertise, as well as their commitment to accelerating progress towards Net Zero.

Headshot of Professor Louise Horsfall

The Science for Sustainability Hub nucleates academic activity at the University of Edinburgh that pioneer technological solutions toward a sustainable future for our people and the planet. The Hub acts as a portal to build engagement across research, industry, government and civil society to build a new vision for a sustainable future.

The Hub is jointly led by Louise Horsfall and Diego Oyarzún. Professor Louise Horsfall, also Chair of Sustainable Biotechnology, was recently awarded funding by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), one of 18 projects chosen for the £5.8 million circular bioeconomy fund. Professor Horsfall’s research concerns valuable metal bio-recovery. The research aims to unearth new ways of recovering nickel, cobalt, and manganese from used lithium-ion batteries through the biosynthesis of metallic nanoparticles from battery leachates. Speaking about her research and the funding, Professor Horsfall said, “The demand for critical metals is increasing at an exponential rate. They are vital components of green technologies, whether that be in energy or catalysis, and are often originally sourced from countries of conflict or political instability. To limit the environmental and societal impact of resource extraction, it is hugely important for the UK to reuse, manufacture, and recycle. This BBSRC funding provides an exciting opportunity to demonstrate that engineering biology can provide new technological solutions for us to do just that and more sustainably.” 

The researchers at Professor Horsfall’s Horsfall Group, alongside researchers at the Wallace Lab, have put engineering biology at the centre of a future circular economy by identifying methods to create new value from industrial and consumer waste.  

The Horsfall Group uses biotechnology and synthetic biology to design bacteria to upcycle metals from existing waste streams. The group has developed practices to aid in successfully transforming the genetic capabilities of bacteria, prioritising biological methods of waste extraction over chemical ones.  

Another engineering biology group is changing how microbial responses can help tackle ecological crises. Researchers at the Wallace Lab are using biochemistry and biotechnology to transform consumer waste flows into chemicals currently manufactured with petrochemicals. In their recent, high-profile work, lead researchers Dr Joanna Sadler and Dr Stephen Wallace demonstrated the viability of using engineered E. Coli bacteria to convert PET plastic into vanillin – work representing the first successful biological upcycling of post-consumer plastic waste into a non-plastic product using an engineered microorganism.  

Further, The University of Edinburgh also supports over 200 researchers working on synthetic and systems biology, an up-and-coming area of research that can help generate novel, sustainable solutions to the many ecological crises facing us today.  

The cutting-edge research that the University supports is in line with the findings of the recently released Scottish Science Advisory Council (SSAC) report titled ‘Towards a Circular Economy: Scotland’s Bioresource Flows,’ in which they outline the next steps in Scotland’s transition towards a circular bioeconomy. Acknowledging the abundance of Scotland’s natural economy, the report focuses on improving the quantification and tracking of bioarisings (a term used to refer to the waste generated by the biosciences sector) and bolstering the producer-manufacturer connectivity.  

Through reviewing evidence and gathering inputs from various stakeholders, the SSAC identified the following three areas of concern: connectivity across the circular supply chain, infrastructure models for a circular supply loop, and the implementation and methodology of digital waste data tracking. To address these concerns, the report highlights the scarcity of good datasets and primary data on bioarisings – flagging the pressing need for compulsory digital waste tracking methods in Scotland.  

Apart from digital waste tracking, the SSAC’s other recommendations include defining tangible Circular Economy targets, improving the connectivity of supply chain commerce, and integrating circularity with civil planning.  

The Scottish Science Advisory Council (SSAC) collaborated with the Circular Economy Unit of the Scottish Government, the Forestry and Environment Directorate, Zero Waste Scotland (ZWS), the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC), and SAGES (Scottish Alliance for Geoscience Environment and Society) policy interns, Dr Carla Comadran Casas (University of Abertay) and Dr Ashley Buchan (School of Geosciences, University of Edinburgh).  

A partnership between the Universities of Aberdeen, Abertay, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, St Andrews, Stirling, SAMS UHI, SUERC, UWS, and the British Geological Survey, Scotland, SAGES is a collaborative, cross-disciplinary effort spearheading earth and environmental research. At The University of Edinburgh, ECCI helms the SAGES Innovation Programme, enabling industry and policy placements and internships.  

Useful links

Science for Sustainability Hub

The Horsfall Group

Wallace Lab