Biodefense Researchers Invent Process to Help Create Biofriendly Products

Posted: April 13, 2004 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Patty Snellings

A U.S. patent was recently granted to George Mason University for a unique cell replication process created by Charles Bailey and Ken Alibek, National Center for Biodefense (NCBD) executive directors. Although the invention doesn’t directly apply to biodefense research, the inventors say it holds promise for a variety of commercial applications.

Bailey, NCBD executive director for research, explains that the newly patented process–called the micro-droplet cell culture technique–is a hybrid of two methods currently in use for large-scale replication, or cultivation, of cells for use in scientific experimentation and research, as well as in the production of industrial products. More efficient methods of replication improve supply, lower costs, and increase profits.

Bailey and Alibek
Charles Bailey, left, and Ken Alibek, National Center for Biodefense executive directors.
Photo by Evan Cantwell

“Liquid fermentation and surface cultivation both have advantages and limitations,” Bailey says, referring to the two methods used most frequently. “The micro-droplet technique combines cell cultures (micro-droplets) in a liquid media with hydrophobic silica (a sandlike substance), which coats the micro-droplets. The coating allows the micro-droplets to maintain a consistent shape that offers more surface area for replication.” Adequate aeration, another step in the replication process, is achieved through spaces between the silica-encapsulated droplets.

The major advantages of the micro-droplet technique over liquid fermentation and surface cultivation include the portability of the process, minimal power supply needs, and lack of requirement for a complex infrastructure for the process, Bailey explains.

Now that the patent has been assigned to the university, Bailey and Alibek, NCBD executive director for education, are exploring the multitude of potential uses of their unique process. Tests are under way to grow mycorrhizal fungi, an organic fertilizer that is environmentally friendly and cheaper to produce than products currently on the market.

Mycorrhizal fungi act on plant roots to improve plant stability; protect against disease and environmental stress; and promote vitality and growth. They are found in products used in agriculture, erosion control, landscaping, forestry, nurseries, and golf courses.

In addition to mycorrhizal fungi, Bailey says the micro-droplet technique can be adapted to thousands of microbes for use in other commercial applications. “The technique would need to be tested with one organism at a time.”

Because the byproduct of the micro-droplet technique is silica, the process doesn’t harm the environment and lends itself to commercial applications such as biomanufacturing, precious and nonprecious metals extraction, bioremediation, and enhanced petroleum products recovery. “Once we establish the efficacy of the micro-droplet technique in producing a product, we can license the technology to a company that is interested in commercial application,” Bailey says.

Jennifer Murphy, director of the university’s Office of Technology Transfer, agrees that the patent has tremendous commercial potential and says it is already generating interest in applicable markets.

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