Finnish science and industry join forces to develop microbial cell factories

News, Press release

Synthetic biology enables the use of living micro-organisms in the manufacture of materials and chemicals. VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, the University of Tampere, Neste, Fortum, Kemira, Mirka and Olfactomics are joining forces to develop precursors for everyday plastic objects out of renewable raw materials. Business Finland funds this SynbioPro project.

The SynbioPro project, which utilises methods of synthetic biology, is of great importance for Finnish industry in its path to more sustainable practices and attempts to disengage from fossil-based raw materials.

The technology being developed in the project is based on the ability of yeast cells and bacteria to function as biological factories. Finland has strong expertise and knowledge in modifying yeasts and bacteria for industrial production. The nearly revolutionary technology developments in biology seen in recent years, such as the CRISPR gene scissors, computational modelling of biological processes, and robotics have enabled such development work to be faster than ever.

 - Microbial cell factories can be harnessed to produce our future materials. The power of nature to synthesize and its rich chemistry gives us possibilities we have never seen before, says the head of the project, Merja Penttilä, Research Professor for Biotechnology at VTT.

The goal of the project is to modify microbes to enable them to alter agricultural and forestry effluents, like cellulose, into basic chemicals used as precursors in the plastics industry, such as acrylic acid and adipic acid. Materials produced from these acids are a significant part of our everyday lives, and the markets for both add up to nearly 20 billion euros per year globally.

- In its Veturi project, Neste is developing sustainable and globally scalable raw material and technology solutions to produce transport fuels as well as chemicals and polymers. Acrylic acid and adipic acid are building blocks of important plastic products, millions of tons of which are produced globally each year. Materials left over from agriculture and forestry, such as straw and logging residue, constitute a large and so-far unutilised pool of raw materials. Synthetic biology is a promising and rapidly developing technology. With its help these raw materials can potentially be utilised in the future in the production of renewable chemicals, thereby reducing the use of crude oil and curbing climate change, says Perttu Koskinen, VP of Innovation, Discovery and External Collaboration at Neste.

SynbioPro is also one of the first project members in the ExpandFibre ecosystem, which is funded by Business Finland through its Veturi instrument. ExpandFibre is an R&D project shared by Fortum and Metsä Group, focusing on refining cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin into products of high value, replacing fossil-based raw materials. Synthetic biology makes it possible to utilise substances such as the hemicellulose sugars and lignin mentioned in the ExpandFibre road map in the manufacture of bio-based chemicals.

In the Veturi projects of Business Finland and the industry, academic research and large-scale industry are working closely together to solve massive challenges and respond to market demand that is calling for responsible action and sustainable practises. In addition to VTT, participants in the SynbioPro project include the University of Tampere (lead by Ville Santala, Associate Professor for Biotechnology) in a research role, and Neste, Fortum, Kemira, Mirka and Olfactomics in the role of developing industrial applications.

- Synthetic biology is an area in which the Business Finland Bio and Circular Finland program wants to create new innovation ecosystem projects, because we believe that synthetic biology is an important enabler of circular economy. Finland's participation is important to ensure that Finland is recognised as a country with powerful skills and knowledge in synthetic biology. International businesses are already looking for significant sustainable solutions to achieve company-specific ecological goals, says Marika Ollaranta, Head of Bio and Circular Finland program.

If it succeeds, the project will greatly affect the way materials of the future are produced. While disengaging energy production from fossil-based raw materials is already now a megatrend, the next one will be the production of materials using new environmentally friendly technologies. SynbioPro has an important role in the development of innovative biotechnological production routes not only in Finland but also on international level.

Further information

VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland
Outi Koivistoinen, Senior Scientist and coordinator of the SynbioPro project
Tel. +358 40 5844149, outi.koivistoinen (at)

Merja Penttilä, Research Professor and Head of the SynbioPro project
Tel. +358 40 7000163, merja.penttila (at)

Business Finland
Marika Ollaranta, Head of Bio and Circular Finland program
Tel. +358 50 4804611, marika.ollaranta (at)

Outi Koivistoinen
Outi Koivistoinen
Merja Penttilä
Merja Penttilä
Our vision beyond 2030

Did you know that we can use living cells to produce the chemicals, materials, and food we need? Among other things, we can turn microbial cells into silkworm silk, egg white, or biodegradable bioplastic.