SurfGlyco - Improved strategies for the fermentative and enzymatic production of tailor-made sugar-based biosurfactants based on renewable resources

Cells of the fungus Ustilago maydis.
Cells of the fungus Ustilago maydis in the haploid, vegetative stage (left). Mannosylerythritol lipids settle at high product concentrations as oil-like beads (middle, with structural formula), cellobiose lipids as needle-like crystals (right, with structural formula).

We encounter surface-active molecules such as surfactants on a daily basis, for example in cleaning agents or personal care products. They are also used as emulsifiers, in pesticides as dispersants with antimicrobial properties and in a wide range of other industrial processes. The global demand for surface-active compounds is therefore constantly increasing. Due to the increased environmental awareness of consumers and legal requirements, corresponding products with a reduced "carbon footprint" and complete biodegradability are in great demand. This requires the introduction of new compounds and production processes based on renewable raw materials.

Biosurfactants as a sustainable alternative

Synthetic surfactants based on vegetable oils and starch, such as alkyl polyglycosides (APG), have a steadily increasing market share. Nevertheless, the chemical synthesis of APGs has disadvantages. For the production of APGs, short-chain fatty acids are necessary as raw materials, as they are found in tropical vegetable oils such as coconut or palm kernel oil. The production of these tropical oils is currently part of a controversial discussion. The effects of slash-and-burn clearances for the establishment of corresponding plantations were recently reported in the main news programmes of public and private broadcasters. Furthermore, chemical synthesis can lead to mixtures of different oligomers and anomers.

The biotechnological production of microbial and enzymatically produced biosurfactants is an attractive alternative. Through additional functionalities, biosurfactants, e.g. glycolipids, can be used to introduce new properties into products, providing additional benefits for consumers. For example, preservative properties have been found for cellobiose lipids (CL) and anti-inflammatory and wound healing promoting properties for mannosylerythritol lipids (MEL). Notwithstanding these facts, their production on a commercial scale has only been realised in very few cases, mainly due to higher costs, and has so far mostly been limited to niche applications.

The main objective of SurfGlyco is therefore to bring microbially and enzymatically produced biosurfactants to the market in larger quantities than before and to bridge the gap between research and application. To achieve this, SurfGlyco will essentially pursue two approaches to greener, surface-active compounds: The enzymatic and fermentative production of glycolipids. Within this framework, Fraunhofer IGB will develop production strategies for the manufacture of tailor-made biosurfactants with the corresponding biocatalysts.

Project information

Project partners

  • Karlsruhe Institute of Technology KIT, Karlsruhe
  • Croda Europe Ltd, Widnes (United Kingdom)
  • Biotrend SA, Cantanhede (Portugal)
  • MetGen Oy (affiliated partner, Kaarina, Finland)


We would like to thank the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL), represented by the Fachagentur Nachwachsende Rohstoffe e.V., for funding the project "SurfGlyco - Improved strategies for the fermentative and enzymatic production of tailor-made sugar-based biosurfactants based on renewable resources" within the framework of the funding programme ERA-IB.

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