Nature Biotechnology December 2003 Volume 21 Number 12 pp 1525 - 1527

Toward an integrated biotechnological engineering education program: a Canadian perspective

2 décembre 2003

Martin Trépanier

Toward an integrated biotechnological engineering education program: a Canadian perspective

Patrick Vermette(1,2,3)

Pierre Proulx(1,3)

Bernard Marcos(1)

1. Department of Chemical Engineering, Université de Sherbrooke, 2500, Blvd. de l'Université, Sherbrooke, Québec, Canada J1K 2R1.

2. Research Center for Aging, Institut Universitaire de Gériatrie de Sherbrooke, 1036, rue Belvédère Sud, Sherbrooke, Québec, Canada J1H 4C4.

3. Intelligent Materials and Systems Institute (IMSI), Université de Sherbrooke, 2500, Blvd. de l'Université, Sherbrooke, Québec, Canada J1K 2R1.

Correspondence should be addressed to P Vermette. e-mail:

As jobs move out of the chemical industry and into biotechnology, engineers with an integrated knowledge of the biological sciences are in increasing demand.

There is a great need for qualified personnel in biotechnology in Canada, and in biotechnological engineering in particular. According to the BioteCanada Annual Report 2002, the number of companies in Canada has increased almost 40%, from 282 in 1997 to 375 in 2001, and biotech revenues in 2001 reached $3.6 billion versus $1.9 billion in 1999. In 1999, there were 6,597 products and processes in the market and in 2001, there were 9,661. Comparatively, Canada ranks third behind the United States and the United Kingdom in generating revenues. It is second behind the United States in terms of the number of biotech companies, and first in R&D expenditure per employee. The number of employees is about 60,000 (ref. 1).

Opportunity for biotechnological engineers

The evolution of biotechnology has led to the need for a fundamental approach to establish new curricula, because classical presuppositions of engineering and biological education do not provide the necessary training required to understand biological systems. Biotechnological engineering curricula must provide a synthesis of biological sciences integrated with traditional engineering principles2.

Although cell functional behavior and underlying molecular mechanisms are becoming increasingly amenable to quantitative approaches, incorporating these into the complex interactions among multiple cell types in bioprocess culture conditions is currently very difficult. Similar to the decades-long lag between the advent of the petro- chemical industry and the introduction of rigorous analysis based on fundamental physicochemical theories3, today's burgeoning attempts in biotechnological engineering are generally highly empirical, with process design based largely on experience and intuition, somewhat like the petrochemical industry of the 1930s. Then, in the 1940s, chemical engineering provided a way of analyzing the wide variety of processes in the heavy chemical industry in terms of a small number of unit operations. We seem to be facing the same situation in biotechnological engineering today.

What is biotechnological engineering?

It is difficult to distinguish between educational programs such as bioprocess engineering, biosystems engineering, biological engineering, biochemical engineering and biotechnological engineering. The concepts associated with these terms are still rather ill defined and often confusing4. Biotechnological engineering can be defined as the conception, development, design, improvement and application of bioprocesses and their products5. This includes the economic development, design, construction, operation, control and management of plants for these bioprocesses, together with research and education in these fields.

The first step in the commercialization of biotechnology is the development of the technology at the laboratory scale by specialists outside engineering. Then, to develop, control and optimize the production, bioprocesses are implemented under the direct guidance of engineers who need to have a solid knowledge of biological sciences, plant design and economics6. However, independent studies have revealed that current training in engineering is inadequate to develop products and processes involving biological and biochemical reactions. Often, professionals in the biotech industry are required to obtain a double diploma in engineering and biological sciences, which prolongs the time students need to stay at school, thus discouraging them from completing an education program in biotechnological engineering and possibly causing a shortage of qualified manpower in this area. The Ordre des ingénieurs du Québec has clearly identified that the biotech industry will soon need engineers with an advanced knowledge in biology and biochemistry to scale up bioprocesses and bioproduct production7.

The work of the biotechnological engineer is different from that of the engineer employed in more traditional industries8 in that:

Knowledge in biological sciences is essential

The ability to scale up laboratory experiments to the industrial level is much more complex than in other industries

The level of regulations, the stringency of their application, and the commercial consequences of a lack of compliance put the biotech industry in a separate category. Companies can face important civil liability, which can lead to exhaustive and expensive lawsuits

Bioindustries are concerned with the capacity of their employees to acquire skills they have not learned at school

Project management is an essential skill

Biotechnological engineering education trends

In Canada, there are very few specific education programs in biotechnological engineering that integrate engineering and biological concepts. Several institutes have opted to offer specialized courses to provide future engineers with some knowledge in biological sciences. However, at present most programs do not provide a truly integrated approach to biotechnological engineering (see Table 1). Rather, biotechnological engineering programs are specializations of chemical engineering, which appears to be the most adapted to enable engineers to practice in the biotech field.

It is imperative that biotechnology defines its own core and strengthens it through scholarly activity and diverse applications. Considering that biotechnology constitutes an emerging and fast growing field, biotechnological engineers should integrate skills in engineering principles, process engineering and biological sciences, without being restrained to a particular area. In designing a biotechnological engineering program, an institute should keep in mind that future engineers must be capable of practicing in several different biotech fields, and must understand the language used by both traditional engineers and biologists. They must be comfortable with living organisms and biomolecules, but be able to understand fundamental unit operations and simulation tools used by engineers. They must understand the physiology of living organisms and the engineering concepts used in bioprocesses. Biotechnological engineers must also assimilate the know-how used in small- and large-scale cultivation of cells and micro-organisms for the production of products of economic interest (e.g., proteins and antibiotics) as well as downstream processing, including the separation and purification of biomacromolecules. Finally, they must be skilled in project management and quality control. Broadly speaking, the biotechnological engineer should be able to solve problems to develop bioproducts and bioprocesses using living organisms or the products they synthesize.

Biotechnological engineering at the Université de Sherbrooke

The new biotechnological engineering program at the Université de Sherbrooke was initiated by the departments of biology and chemical engineering. Under the direct management of the department of chemical engineering but completely independent from the chemical engineering program, courses for the biotechnological engineering program are given by faculty members from both departments. The program is divided into eight terms, which includes laboratories, applied projects and lectures.

The university has adopted revolutionary practices in the training of young engineers, not only from the point of view of cooperative training (four four-month work terms in industry) but also in terms of pedagogic innovations. Students immediately begin work on an integration project (problem-based learning) rather than being submitted to a whole series of lectures and poorly related, multidirectional courses constituting the so-called common core of an engineer's training program. This approach has shown spectacular results in terms of quality of training, enhanced design ability, teamwork synergisms, improved interpersonal relationships and problem solving. Faculty are currently being recruited in the areas of downstream processes, transport phenomena of biological fluids, bioprocess control, advanced separation and purification techniques, industrial bioprocesses, molecular biology in plant systems, molecular biology in animal cells and microbiology.

Setting up the program will also require specific infrastructure not commonly found in departments of chemical engineering and biology. Additional facilities for cell culture (animal, microorganisms and plants) are needed, as well as a pilot plant to train students in an environment resembling that encountered in the biotech industry. The pilot plant constructed at the university will include reactors for the production of biomolecules from different cell types and downstream processing units for separation and purification (chromatography and crystallization). Given the importance of the regulations and the stringency of their application, Good Laboratory Practices and Good Manufacturing Practices will be enforced to expose students to these protocols.

In the program's third year, Sherbrooke will seek accreditation for the biotechnological engineering program to the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers, which regulates the profession of engineering in Canada and licenses the country's 157,000 professional engineers.

Future perspectives

It is time to define the growing discipline and profession of biotechnological engineering by keeping in mind that it must define its own intellectual core with a truly integrated engineering and biological approach. It is not sufficient to incorporate biological science courses into a chemical engineering curriculum and hope that students will be able to integrate both concepts. In addition, curricula must use tutored practical work, case studies and direct experience in industry. According to Larry Drumm, vice president of business development at the Michigan Biotechnology Institute, "Everyone sees jobs moving out of the chemical industry and into biology. It is not just molecular biologists that will be needed, however. Engineers will be needed to make processes feasible"9. To allow biotechnological engineering to emerge, there is a growing need for internationally accepted standards of biotechnological engineering education programs. The international mobility of engineers adds to the need for recognizable qualifications.

To prepare students for employment, it is essential that biotechnological engineering education keeps up with constant change. This means that courses in biological sciences and engineering principles should be constantly refined by professors, scientists and those in industry to keep up with rapid changes and integrate them into the curriculum.

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