Integrating ‘Sustainable Development’ into higher education teaching in the life sciences.

Sustainable development

“Sustainable development” (SD) describes a shift in societal attitudes and behaviours, and in industrial practice and norms, towards a more sustainable way of life. In other words, it is the way in which we increase the sustainability of our lifestyles. Sustainability can be defined as a way of living well within our means, without causing harm to the planet. SD has three pillars: environment, society, and the economy. These are inter-dependent sectors, and all must be considered when assessing the sustainability of a certain action or behaviour.

My Master’s degree was in Environmental Biogeochemistry, and my PhD and subsequent research career have focussed on environmentally-relevant biochemistry. In addition, I served on the KTH School of Biotechnology’s environment and sustainability committee for several years, and was involved in a number of diverse efforts to increase the sustainability of our department, such as reducing antibiotic waste from the laboratory and encouraging people to commute to work by public transport rather than by car.

Sustainable development in third cycle education

While maintaining the personal needs of the student as the highest priority, and the education of the student as the primary goal, it is recommended to have considerations of sustainability and environmental impact in mind when designing a course in the life sciences. Graduates need to be responsible global citizens, aware of the impact their choices will make on the planet and the people who live on it. I teach at an engineering-focussed university, and we know that future engineers who will likely go on to design industrial-scale processes must have SD considerations deeply integrated in their thinking. They need to be able to assess their designs from a human and environmental perspective, as well as from a financial viewpoint.

In my experience, Master’s level biotechnology students tend to have a quite good innate understanding of either the economic or the environmental elements of SD (depending on their personal interests and previous courses taken), but very few can define the related societal factors. I think that this is because they all come from technical educational backgrounds, and have usually not studied humanities or social science for a long time (if at all), and are not used to thinking of their field of study in human terms. When we learn about a biological or “green chemistry” alternative to an existing polluting process, they often get frustrated when they realise that the more environmentally sensible option has not been implemented at scale. I see this when we discuss biological control as a replacement for synthetic pesticides, when we discuss using algae instead of plants to make biofuel, when we talk about recombinant production of proteins typically harvested from animal tissues, and so on. It takes them time to realise that the economic cost of shifting to a new process is what most often holds industry back – even though they know this in their personal lives, they have never applied such thinking to their learning at university. But I’ve seen a lot of students become very invigorated and determined to make changes in the world when they realise how their knowledge of fundamental biotechnology and advanced industrial bioprocess design can start to address economic problems as well as environmental ones.

Sustainable development in life science education

In the field of biotechnology, we are often concerned with developing new bio-inspired technologies to replace existing products or manufacturing processes that are non-sustainable. For example, we research biofuels and bioplastics produced from waste plant material, we investigate how to reduce or bioremediate industrial waste, and we look for natural alternatives to chemical pesticides. I think that it is very clear how SD can be integrated into our field of research, if we are willing to re-focus the way we present scientific concepts.

We have recently re-designed several courses for the KTH Master’s programmes in Industrial & Environmental Biotechnology, which try to integrate SD and systems thinking perspectives in all courses, as well as offering a course specifically on life cycle analysis (LCA) methods. Thus, we are pursuing a centralised approach to teaching the fundamentals of SD (Mann et al, 2009), to make sure students are bringing a well-informed sustainability mindset to classes about, for example, vaccine production, enzyme discovery, wastewater treatment, and cell factory techniques. Our LCA-specific course is taught by experts in the technique, and the students work on projects designed by their biotech teachers, so that they are immediately applying mathematical LCA models to processes of relevance to their programme. In later courses we call back on this knowledge to reinforce it. I discuss biofuel production with students in two courses (one focussing on plant vs microbial cell factories, and one discussing how we discover novel enzyme activities), and ask them to perform a sustainability assessment of different techniques, supporting their arguments with rigorous scientific data. Thus, we are using a more distributed approach to teaching the topic (Mann et al, 2009). In fundamental courses on biochemistry I often set reading exercises and ask students to discuss how sustainable a recently published or commercialised product or process really is. For example, in the Cell Factory course we look at a range of industrial uses for plant lipids. We discuss the use of lipids for the production of fuel and plastic materials, as well as their use in processed food and baby formula. For all of these cases we examine the environmental impact (e.g. by comparing the use of petroleum as a fuel), the economic impact (e.g. of taking a potential feed/food-stock out of circulation), and the societal impact (e.g. the unequitable global distribution of petroleum deposits and palm plantations). If this approach is followed in all courses within a programme, then students will feel that SD is truly an integral part of their work, rather than an add-on or something to be calculated after an industrial process is established (Cai, 2010; Sterling, 2004). This is well aligned with the CDIO goals of giving students the chance to practice the design and implementation of a process.

Higher education practitioners and pedagogic developers typically agree that in order to keep students activated, energised, and motivated to learn, it is important to utilise a diverse range of teaching and learning activities within a course and within a programme. As discussed by Mulder et al (2012), active learning and project-based learning (PBL) are the most effective tools for getting engineering students to think beyond their comfort zones and consider the human and societal factors relating to SD. PBL is also a great way of giving students insight into the real current needs of industry, as it is possible to work with partners from outside the university in designing and/or supervising student projects and theses (Hanning et al, 2012). I use peer teaching in a few of my courses, encouraging students to do some reading and share what they’ve learned with the rest of the class. Asking students to take responsibility for leading discussion sessions in this way can be motivating for most of them, as it is vital that they keep up with the reading in order to participate in the class. This is a challenging exercise for students who are used to a more passive style of learning, but they are supported by working in peer groups, and by being allowed plenty of time for the reading and related assignment both during and between classes, as they wish. Flexibility of learning is important for many students, and ensures that people don’t ‘drop off’ unnecessarily.


Y. Cai, “Integrating sustainability into undergraduate computing education”. In Proc. SIGCSE’10, ACM, 2010, 524-528

A. Hanning, A. P. Abelsson, U. Lundqvist and M. Svanström, “Are we educating engineers for sustainability? Comparison between obtained competences and Swedish industry’s needs”. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 2012. Vol: 13 No: 3, p. 305-320

S. Mann, L. Muller, J. Davis, C. Roda and A. Young, “Computing and sustainability: evaluating resources for educators”. ACM SIGCSE Bulletin, 2009. Vol: 41, No: 4, p. 144-155.

K. F. Mulder, J. Segalas and D. Ferrer-Balas, “How to educate engineers for/in sustainable development. Ten years of discussion, remaining challenges”. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 2012. Vol: 13 No: 3, p. 211-218.

S. Sterling, “Higher education, sustainability, and the role of systemic learning”, in Higher education and the challenge of sustainability: Problematics, Promise and Practice, P. B. Corcoran and A. E. J. Wals, Editors. 2004, Springer: Netherlands. p. 49-70.

New publication! An enzymatic method to produce nanocellulose from softwood chips.

Nanocellulose is an amazing natural material. It is produced by taking cellulose – found in wood, paper, cotton, and so on – and disintegrating it into nanoparticles. These can be used to make paper, films, and gels. They can be assembled into super-strong fibres, or blended with other biomaterials to increase strength and reduce production costs. And because they are made from natural plant biomass, they can be considered a quite sustainable product, since they are derived from renewable resources.

The use of nanocellulose is particularly advanced in Japan, where you can find it in pen ink, some clothing, and footwear. It is very lightweight and also very strong, so it is ideal for these applications. Exploitation is not so advanced in Europe, but companies like Cellutech are developing cellulose-based packaging materials and even a bicycle helmet.

Although the material is produced from environmentally responsible renewable resources, the typical methods for disintegrating cellulose into nanocellulose involve a lot of quite nasty chemicals. Sulphuric acid and a chemical called TEMPO are used, which generates a lot of chemical waste. Sustainable industrial development requires us to minimise the production of waste at all levels, and to find alternatives to chemicals that can damage health or the environment.

This is why many researchers, like a team at KTH Division of Glycoscience, are keen on developing enzyme-catalysed nanocellulose production. Enzymes work at moderate pH and temperature conditions, and no harsh chemicals are used in the enzyme reaction, so the ecological footprint of nanocellulose production can be greatly improved.

This new paper is the first PhD publication for doctoral student Salla Koskela. I co-supervise Salla at KTH in Stockholm, helping her to optimise protein production and enzyme assay protocols. Her main supervisor is Prof Qi Zhou, an expert in biomaterials based on natural polymers like cellulose and chitin. Another of Qi’s students, Shennan Wang, was also instrumental in this work thanks to his ability to characterise biomaterials.

In this work, Salla and Shennan showed that we can take one enzyme – belonging to the class called Lytic Polysaccharide Monooxygenases, or LPMOs – and convert spruce wood into nanocellulose fibres. The wood is first chemically treated to remove lignin and form large cellulose fibres. Then, Salla’s enzyme chops those down to nanofibres. The nanocellulose fibres can be formed into nanopaper, which Shennan can investigate for strength and toughness.

One of the people who peer-reviewed this article before it was published praised our nanocellulose production process for being quite easy (it has relatively few processing steps), and having a high yield of nanocellulose production. These are crucial factors to consider if enzymatic nanocellulose production is ever to be implemented at large commercial scale.

Ours is not the first report of an enzyme being used to make nanocellulose, but we were pleased to be able to achieve a highly detailed characterisation of our final material, including producing nanopapers with high strength. We also believe that we are among the first to produce such thin nanofibres of cellulose – ultra-fine nanocellulose can confer higher strength than slightly thicker fibres.

You can read the paper now at Green Chemistry.

Lytic polysaccharide monooxygenase (LPMO) mediated production of ultra-fine cellulose nanofibres from delignified softwood fibres. Koskela S, Wang S, Xu D, Yang X, Li K, Berglund L, McKee LS, Bulone V, and Zhou Q. Green Chem., 2019,21, 5924-5933