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University of Basel

“Nature Is the Embodiment of a Sustainable System”

Florian Seebeck is fascinated by the molecules of life. “My work allows me a glimpse into nature’s chemistry lab,” says the professor from Basel, who is barely 40 years old. “What you find there is a veritable surprise package.”

Florian Seebeck
As a professor of molecular bionics, Seebeck is trying to gain a better understanding of how certain genes function, in order to find potential applications. © Universität Basel

Wood might become the new plastic

Seebeck is looking for potential applications in this diversity in nature – or, more specifically, in the genetic material of bacteria and fungi. Today, the DNA of countless organisms has been decoded, and this data has been made available to the public. While conventional bionics scientists study things such as birds’ wings to build better aircraft, as a professor of molecular bionics, Seebeck is trying to understand the function of certain genes in order to make more practical use of them.

Among other things, Seebeck and his team are studying the natural substances that decompose wood. Most organisms cannot digest wood, but there are certain fungi and bacteria that can – albeit at a high price. They must be able to handle what is known as oxidative stress because the aggressive oxygen molecules they produce to break down dead wood can also be harmful to themselves. Living shrubs and trees also produce these kinds of oxygen molecules to defend themselves against bacteria. Oxidative stress also plays a considerable role in human diseases such as cancer.

Doctors would therefore like to better understand why wood-degrading fungi and bacteria are for the most part resistant to oxidative stress. Agronomists are also interested in these processes, but for different reasons. They want to know how they can better combat wood-degrading microorganisms because they cause diseases such as fire blight and potato rot.

The benefits of microorganisms that can process wood could, however, go much further. “If we are able to exploit the decomposition process for ourselves, in the future we will be able to use wood to make many things for which we currently use petroleum,” says Seebeck. “Wood might become the new plastic.” Unlike petroleum, wood regenerates, which could make a considerable contribution towards the sustainable use of natural resources. But we have to use wood sustainably.

Sustainable basic research

For Seebeck, nature is the embodiment of a sustainable system. “What isn’t sustainable disappears with evolution,” he explains. “Nature is not based on monoculture, but rather diversity.” Many natural substances are found in different organisms and have different functions. It is precisely this diversity that Seebeck would like to study and better utilize.

Seebeck sees the search for new technologies that allow us to treat nature more sustainably as a great challenge for the natural sciences. “This challenge should inspire more than just the applied sciences,” he says. “It should also serve as a motor and source of ideas for basic research.”

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