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What is Biochemical Engineering

In 1928, Alexander Fleming inadvertently discovered that the common mold Penicillium produced a powerful antibacterial agent.The active agent produced by the mold, penicillin, worked wonders for treating human infections, but was difficult to produce in sufficient quantities.  Mold cultures were grown on the surface of solutions contained in milk bottles; however, it was determined that a row of bottles stretching from New York City to San Francisco would be required to meet the penicillin demand of wounded soldiers during World War II.  To help meet this war demand, chemical engineers worked with microbiologists to develop a process for culturing mold in 10,000 gallon tanks (fermentors). Significant engineering challenges were associated with this tank process: aeration, agitation, heat removal, and sterility issues all had to be dealt with.  With the successful engineering of these tank fermentors, the United States developed the capacity to produce enough penicillin for approximately 100,000 patients per year by the end of World War II.  This historic development was based on knowledge from both microbiology and chemical engineering, and ushered in a new discipline known as bioprocessing or biochemical engineering. Broadly speaking, this discipline involves the application of chemical engineering principles to biological systems. 

 An explosion of new knowledge in the life sciences has occurred in recent years. Genetic engineering allows us to transplant human DNA encoding for insulin into an E. coli host cell.  These bacterial cells can then be cultured in large fermentors similar to those used for penicillin, producing true human insulin in the process.Significant new biological discoveries are ongoing in the areas of pharmaceuticals, agriculture, food processing, environmental remediation, and even specialty chemicals:


Genetically modified cells produce substances for the treatment of diabetes, anemia, breast cancer, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and rheumatoid arthritis


Bacillus thuringiensis for the production of natural pesticides

Transgenic crops for the production of therapeutic proteins

Fermentation of grain starch and biomass wastes to fuel ethanol

Bacterial production of lysine animal feed supplements, which eliminate the risk of mad cow disease

Food processing

Enzymatic production of high fructose corn syrup from corn starch

Bacterial production of food additives such as citric acid, lactic acid, and xantham gum


Cleanup of oil, gasoline, and diesel fuel spills

Treatment of mine tailings, abandoned refineries, former military sites

Municipal drinking water and wastewater treatment

Specialty chemicals

Production of specialty polymers from corn starch

Biosynthesis of indigo dye for blue jeans


While biological discoveries in these fields bear much promise, significant engineering challenges must again be met to bring these products to the people. Thus, this explosion of discoveries in the biological sciences will require knowledgeable biochemical engineers to make them a household reality.