Elimination or mitigation of the toxic effects of chemical waste released to the environment by industrial and urban activities relies largely on the catalytic activities of microorganisms-specifically bacteria. Given their capacity to evolve rapidly, they have the biochemical power to tackle a large number of molecules mobilized from their geological repositories through human action (e.g., hydrocarbons, heavy metals) or generated through chemical synthesis (e.g., xenobiotic compounds). Whereas naturally occurring microbes already have considerable ability to remove many environmental pollutants with no external intervention, the onset of genetic engineering in the 1980s allowed the possibility of rational design of bacteria to catabolize specific compounds, which could eventually be released into the environment as bioremediation agents. The complexity of this endeavour and the lack of fundamental knowledge nonetheless led to the virtual abandonment of such a recombinant DNA-based bioremediation only a decade later. In a twist of events, the last few years have witnessed the emergence of new systemic fields (including systems and synthetic biology, and metabolic engineering) that allow revisiting the same environmental pollution challenges through fresh and far more powerful approaches. The focus on contaminated sites and chemicals has been broadened by the phenomenal problems of anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases and the accumulation of plastic waste on a global scale. In this article, we analyze how contemporary systemic biology is helping to take the design of bioremediation agents back to the core of environmental biotechnology. We inspect a number of recent strategies for catabolic pathway construction and optimization and we bring them together by proposing an engineering workflow.
Keywords: Biodegradation pathway engineering; Bioremediation; Emerging pollutants; Environmental biotechnology; Metabolic engineering; Synthetic biology; Systemic biology; Systems biology.
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