30 October 2003

University of Queensland (UQ) scientists are playing a major role in a new Environmental Biotechnology Cooperative Research Centre (EBCRC) being launched in Sydney today (30 October).

The UQ scientists will be part of a team creating a new range of industries based on the power of bacteria.

The diverse industries they are looking to create include converting domestic and industrial waste into new products; ensuring safe water supplies for stock and humans, cleaning up toxic dumps; and creating long-life paint that includes living bacteria.

The EBCRC is a collaboration between the Universities of Queensland, New South Wales, Macquarie and Murdoch and the South Australian Research and Development Institute. It is supported by industry partners: Meat and Livestock Australia, the Australian Meat Producers Corporation, Orica and Collex.

Professor Alastair McEwan and Associate Professor Jurg Keller from UQ will play a crucial role in developing all the industries. In particular, they will bring their world-renown expertise in the wastewater management and molecular biology to the CRC.

Dr David Garman, Executive Director of EBCRC, said the CRC's research will help Australia develop a strong coherent environmental biotechnology industry that will lead the world in innovation.

The CRC brings together some of Australia's best molecular biologists and engineers, and will be partnering with the UN Environment Programme to become one of three top environmental biotechnology centres in the world.

"Currently only 4.5 percent of Australia's expenditure on biotechnology is in the environmental area. But market for commercialising new technologies is estimated to be in the order of $5 billion," Dr Garman said. "And that does not include the immense public good expected from applying new technologies and ideas."

The UQ researchers have already identified a "smart, versatile" purple bacteria that looks promising for converting abattoir waste into products.

"It has the potential to produce compounds for cancer treatment, as well as biodegradable herbicides and pesticides," said Professor McEwan.

Another EBCRC project based at UQ aims to turn abattoir wastewater into fertilisers. This process uses a mix of bacteria to convert the nutrients found in protein, fat and blood into phosphorus-rich compounds that can be used as fertilisers.

"Our challenge is to identify and control the right mix of bacteria to make the fertiliser," said Associate Professor Keller. "If we can do this, it will be a win-win for both the environment and meat producers."

Other EBCRC research is looking to:
* Convert domestic waste into recyclable plastics for everyday uses
* Replace heavy metals with living bacteria for cheaper, longer-lasting, safer paints
* Ensure cost-effective clean up of toxic industrial waste by using bacteria launched from special plastic shells
* Produce new pharmaceutical products from industrial chemical waste
* Convert waste into bio-fuels such as ethanol and methanol
* Stop bacteria from forming "biofilms" in drinking water supplies, saving on water treatment costs

Media: For more information, please contact Dr David Garman (phone 02 9385 5008, 0408 280 135); Professor Alastair McEwan (phone 07 3365 4878); or Associate Professor Jurg Keller (phone 07 3365 4727).