Karina Sałek and Tony Gutierrez
Surface-active agents are amphiphilic chemicals that are used in almost every sector of modern industry, the bulk of which are produced by organo-chemical synthesis. Those produced from biological sources (biosurfactants and bioemulsifiers), however, have gained increasing interest in recent years due to their wide structural and functional diversity, lower toxicities and high biodegradability, compared to their chemically-synthesised counterparts. This review aims to present a general overview on surface-active agents, including their classification, where new types of these biomolecules may lay awaiting discovery, and some of the main bottlenecks for their industrial-scale production. In particular, the marine environment is highlighted as a largely untapped source for discovering new types of surface-active agents. Marine bacteria, especially those living associated with micro-algae (eukaryotic phytoplankton), are a highly promising source of polymeric surface-active agents with potential biotechnological applications. The high uronic acids content of these macromolecules has been linked to conferring them with amphiphilic qualities, and their high structural diversity and polyanionic nature endows them with the potential to exhibit a wide range of functional diversity. Production yields (e.g. by fermentation) for most microbial surface-active agents have often been too low to meet the volume demands of industry, and this principally remains as the most important bottleneck for their further commercial development. However, new developments in recombinant and synthetic biology approaches can offer significant promise to alleviate this bottleneck. This review highlights a particular biotope in the marine environment that offers promise for discovering novel surface-active biomolecules, and gives a general overview on specific areas that researchers and the industry could focus work towards increasing the production yields of microbial surface-active agents.