BEEM Research Overview

The BEEM project

Never has concern over the health of our environment been more front and centre.  Everyone is looking for ways to do more with less:  use less energy, use fewer raw materials, and reduce pollution.  Imagine a world in which no materials are squandered, industry creates no polluting residues, water leaves a factory cleaner than when it entered, and waste is easily and cheaply transformed into clean energy and goods.  The scientists and engineers of the BEEM project are enlisting the smallest of life forms to help achieve these goals.

BEEM is a $10-million, 4-year international project led by Elizabeth Edwards of the University of Toronto and David Major of Geosyntec Consultants Inc. whose focus is to harness the power of microorganisms to address these environmental challenges and help create cleaner technologies. 

Microorganisms -- tiny but powerful

Microorganisms make up more than 60% of Earth’s biomass and are nature’s recyclers, capable of biologically transforming a remarkable range of chemical compounds.  The keys to their extraordinary abilities are enzymes, complex proteins produced in the cell that act as catalysts for all manner of chemical transformations.  Despite its central role in the environment, the microbial world remains a largely uncharacterized and untapped reservoir of potentially useful enzymes, in part because most microorganisms cannot be cultivated in the lab.  The prospect of taking advantage of their amazing capabilities has led to the development of new genomic techniques in which microbial enzymes and their functions can be quickly studied from environmental samples, without the need to isolate individual organisms.  The ultimate aim of BEEM is to use these techniques to find industrially useful enzymes in nature and to develop processes that take advantage of them to manufacture bioproducts and minimize waste.

BEEM project goals

The BEEM project’s overall goal is to develop commercializable microbial cultures and enzymes that can transform low value materials or wastes into high value products.  More specifically, the project aims to:

  • Understand knowledge gaps and opportunities for the application of bioprocesses and bioproducts in industry through careful life cycle analysis
  • Develop microbial systems that transform low-value co-products, feedstock residues and waste streams into high-value bioproducts, such as plastics and feedstocks for the chemical industry and biofuels
  • Develop microbial systems that break down pollutants to help restore contaminated land and water

BEEM research program

To accomplish these objectives, BEEM researchers will explore unusual environments such as moose rumen, beaver droppings, contaminated sites and deep ocean basins, that are likely to harbour useful enzymes for specific processes.  Samples from these settings will feed BEEM’s high throughput “pipeline” that will identify and characterize promising new microbial communities and enzymes from environmental samples rich in uncharacterized microbes and will determine their potential as valuable catalysts.  Metagenome sequencing and computational modeling will be used to identify relevant metabolic enzymes and pathways.  Finally, the newly discovered microbial processes will be optimized for industrial, biotechnological application. 

Throughout the BEEM project, input from experts in the industrial application of biotechnology will guide the selection of potentially useful enzymes during the screening process.  Life cycle analysis will ensure that any bioproducts generated will meet Canada’s urgent need for renewable and sustainable products and clean water.  With its wealth of agricultural, forestry and water resources, Canada is well-positioned to become a global leader in biotechnologies that transform underutilized, low-cost waste, such as crop residues, into high-value bioproducts, such as plastics and fuels.  The project aims to address the country’s strategic interest in clean technologies and bring substantial benefits to Canada including cost-effective production of biomaterials and optimal designs for remediation strategies. 

The BEEM team

The BEEM project brings together a research team that includes world leaders in the use of genomic sequencing to identify new and useful microbial activities, with particular expertise in anaerobic conditions.  Members of the team have already worked with pulp and paper mills to develop microbial processes that have reduced harmful byproducts and generate energy from anaerobic digestion of waste streams.  In addition, members of the team have developed and commercialized a microbial community called KB-1® that has been used in over 200 sites worldwide to clean up groundwater contaminated with organic solvents.

Specific research themes are: