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Synthetic Biology underpins advances in the bioeconomy

Biological systems - including the simplest cells - exhibit a broad range of functions to thrive in their environment. Research in the Imperial College Centre for Synthetic Biology is focused on the possibility of engineering the underlying biochemical processes to solve many of the challenges facing society, from healthcare to sustainable energy. In particular, we model, analyse, design and build biological and biochemical systems in living cells and/or in cell extracts, both exploring and enhancing the engineering potential of biology. 

As part of our research we develop novel methods to accelerate the celebrated Design-Build-Test-Learn synthetic biology cycle. As such research in the Centre for Synthetic Biology highly multi- and interdisciplinary covering computational modelling and machine learning approaches; automated platform development and genetic circuit engineering ; multi-cellular and multi-organismal interactions, including gene drive and genome engineering; metabolic engineering; in vitro/cell-free synthetic biology; engineered phages and directed evolution; and biomimetics, biomaterials and biological engineering.


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  • Journal article
    Gilbert C, Ellis T, 2019,

    Biological engineered living materials - growing functional materials with genetically-programmable properties

    , ACS Synthetic Biology, Vol: 8, Pages: 1-15, ISSN: 2161-5063

    Natural biological materials exhibit remarkable properties: self-assembly from simple raw materials, precise control of morphology, diverse physical and chemical properties, self-repair and the ability to sense-and-respond to environmental stimuli. Despite having found numerous uses in human industry and society, the utility of natural biological materials is limited. But, could it be possible to genetically program microbes to create entirely new and useful biological materials? At the intersection between microbiology, material science and synthetic biology, the emerging field of biological Engineered Living Materials (ELMs) aims to answer this question. Here we review recent efforts to program cells to produce living materials with novel functional properties, focussing on microbial systems that can be engineered to grow materials and on new genetic circuits for pattern formation that could be used to produce the more complex systems of the future.

  • Journal article
    Ellis T, 2019,

    Predicting how evolution will beat us

    , MICROBIAL BIOTECHNOLOGY, Vol: 12, Pages: 41-43, ISSN: 1751-7915
  • Journal article
    Blount B, Ellis T, 2019,

    The Synthetic Genome Summer Course

    , Synthetic Biology, Vol: 3, ISSN: 2397-7000

    The Synthetic Genome Summer Course was convened with the aim of teaching a wide range of researchers the theory and practical skills behind recent advances in synthetic biology and synthetic genome science, with a focus on Sc2.0, the synthetic yeast genome project. Through software workshops, tutorials and research talks from leading members of the field, the 30 attendees learnt about relevant principles and techniques that they were then able to implement first-hand in laboratory-based practical sessions. Participants SCRaMbLEd semi-synthetic yeast strains to diversify heterologous pathways, used automation to build combinatorial pathway libraries and used CRISPR to debug fitness defects caused by synthetic chromosome design changes. Societal implications of synthetic chromosomes were explored and industrial stakeholders discussed synthetic biology from a commercial standpoint. Over the 5 days, participants gained valuable insight and acquired skills to aid them in future synthetic genome research.

  • Journal article
    Weenink T, van der Hilst J, McKiernan R, Ellis Tet al., 2019,

    Design of RNA hairpin modules that predictably tune translation in yeast

    , Synthetic Biology, Vol: 3, ISSN: 2397-7000

    Modular parts for tuning translation are prevalent in prokaryotic synthetic biology but lacking for eukaryotic synthetic biology. Working in Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast, we here describe how hairpin RNA structures inserted into the 5′ untranslated region (5′UTR) of mRNAs can be used to tune expression levels by 100-fold by inhibiting translation. We determine the relationship between the calculated free energy of folding in the 5′UTR and in vivo protein abundance, and show that this enables rational design of hairpin libraries that give predicted expression outputs. Our approach is modular, working with different promoters and protein coding sequences, and outperforms promoter mutation as a way to predictably generate a library where a protein is induced to express at a range of different levels. With this new tool, computational RNA sequence design can be used to predictably fine-tune protein production for genes expressed in yeast.

  • Journal article
    Lawrence J, Chang S, Rodriguez LC, Ouldridge Tet al., 2019,

    Students go through the gears at the iGEM competition for engineering biology

    , Biochemist, Vol: 41, Pages: 58-61, ISSN: 0954-982X

    © 2019 Biochemical Society. The annual International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, represents an exciting opportunity for students to experience first-hand the potential of synthetic biology approaches to solve real-world problems. In this article, an iGEM team based at Imperial College London share some of the highlights from their participation in the 2018 iGEM event, including sharing their work at the annual Jamboree in Boston, Massachusetts.

  • Conference paper
    Tuza ZA, Stan G-B, 2019,

    An Automatic Sparse Model Estimation Method Guided by Constraints That Encode System Properties

    , 18th European Control Conference (ECC), Publisher: IEEE, Pages: 2171-2176
  • Book chapter
    Ouldridge TE, Brittain R, ten Wolde PR, 2018,

    The power of being explicit: demystifying work, heat, and free energy in the physics of computation

    , The Interplay of Thermodynamics and Computation in Both Natural and Artificial Systems
  • Conference paper
    Toczek M, Zielonka D, Zukowska P, Marcinkowski JT, Kutryb-Zajac B, Slominska E, Isalan M, Mielcarek M, Smolenski RT, Toczek M, Zielonka D, Zukowska P, Marcinkowski JT, Kutryb-Zajac B, Slominska E, Isalan M, Mielcarek M, Smolenski RTet al., 2018,

    An altered nucleotide metabolism as a novel mechanism leading to Huntington disease related cardiomyopathy

    , Purines 2018 Basic and Translational Science on Purinergic Signaling and its Components for a Healthy and Better World, Publisher: Springer Verlag, Pages: S53-S53, ISSN: 1573-9538
  • Journal article
    Kyrou K, Hammond AM, Galizi R, Kranjc N, Burt A, Beaghton AK, Nolan T, Crisanti Aet al., 2018,

    A CRISPR-Cas9 gene drive targeting doublesex causes complete population suppression in caged Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes

    , Nature Biotechnology, Vol: 36, Pages: 1062-1066, ISSN: 1087-0156

    In the human malaria vector Anopheles gambiae, the gene doublesex (Agdsx) encodes two alternatively spliced transcripts, dsx-female (AgdsxF) and dsx-male (AgdsxM), that control differentiation of the two sexes. The female transcript, unlike the male, contains an exon (exon 5) whose sequence is highly conserved in all Anopheles mosquitoes so far analyzed. We found that CRISPR–Cas9-targeted disruption of the intron 4–exon 5 boundary aimed at blocking the formation of functional AgdsxF did not affect male development or fertility, whereas females homozygous for the disrupted allele showed an intersex phenotype and complete sterility. A CRISPR–Cas9 gene drive construct targeting this same sequence spread rapidly in caged mosquitoes, reaching 100% prevalence within 7–11 generations while progressively reducing egg production to the point of total population collapse. Owing to functional constraint of the target sequence, no selection of alleles resistant to the gene drive occurred in these laboratory experiments. Cas9-resistant variants arose in each generation at the target site but did not block the spread of the drive.

  • Journal article
    Gorochowski TE, Ellis T, 2018,

    Designing efficient translation

    , NATURE BIOTECHNOLOGY, Vol: 36, Pages: 934-935, ISSN: 1087-0156
  • Journal article
    Trantidou T, Dekker L, Polizzi K, Ces O, Elani Yet al., 2018,

    Functionalizing cell-mimetic giant vesicles with encapsulated bacterial biosensors

    , Interface Focus, Vol: 8, ISSN: 2042-8901

    The design of vesicle microsystems as artificial cells (bottom-up synthetic biology) has traditionally relied on the incorporation of molecular components to impart functionality. These cell mimics have reduced capabilities compared with their engineered biological counterparts (top-down synthetic biology), as they lack the powerful metabolic and regulatory pathways associated with living systems. There is increasing scope for using whole intact cellular components as functional modules within artificial cells, as a route to increase the capabilities of artificial cells. In this feasibility study, we design and embed genetically engineered microbes (Escherichia coli) in a vesicle-based cell mimic and use them as biosensing modules for real-time monitoring of lactate in the external environment. Using this conceptual framework, the functionality of other microbial devices can be conferred into vesicle microsystems in the future, bridging the gap between bottom-up and top-down synthetic biology.

  • Journal article
    Waters AJ, Capriotti P, Gaboriau DCA, Papathanos PA, Windbichler Net al., 2018,

    Rationally-engineered reproductive barriers using CRISPR & CRISPRa: an evaluation of the synthetic species concept in Drosophila melanogaster

    , Scientific Reports, Vol: 8, ISSN: 2045-2322

    The ability to erect rationally-engineered reproductive barriers in animal or plant species promises to enable a number of biotechnological applications such as the creation of genetic firewalls, the containment of gene drives or novel population replacement and suppression strategies for genetic control. However, to date no experimental data exist that explores this concept in a multicellular organism. Here we examine the requirements for building artificial reproductive barriers in the metazoan model Drosophila melanogaster by combining CRISPR-based genome editing and transcriptional transactivation (CRISPRa) of the same loci. We directed 13 single guide RNAs (sgRNAs) to the promoters of 7 evolutionary conserved genes and used 11 drivers to conduct a misactivation screen. We identify dominant-lethal activators of the eve locus and find that they disrupt development by strongly activating eve outside its native spatio-temporal context. We employ the same set of sgRNAs to isolate, by genome editing, protective INDELs that render these loci resistant to transactivation without interfering with target gene function. When these sets of genetic components are combined we find that complete synthetic lethality, a prerequisite for most applications, is achievable using this approach. However, our results suggest a steep trade-off between the level and scope of dCas9 expression, the degree of genetic isolation achievable and the resulting impact on fly fitness. The genetic engineering strategy we present here allows the creation of single or multiple reproductive barriers and could be applied to other multicellular organisms such as disease vectors or transgenic organisms of economic importance.

  • Conference paper
    Puch A, Witkowski G, Isalan M, Mielcarek M, Zielonka Det al., 2018,

    A frequency of concomitant disorders in presymptomatic huntington’s disease patients

    , EHDN Plenary Meeting 2018, Publisher: BMJ Publishing Group, Pages: A42-A43, ISSN: 1468-330X
  • Conference paper
    Toczek M, Zielonka D, Marcinkowski J, Isalan M, Smolenski R, Mielcarek Met al.,

    An altered metabolism of nucleotides leads to huntington’s disease related cardiomyopathy

    , EHDN Plenary Meeting, Publisher: BMJ Publishing Group, Pages: A13-A13, ISSN: 1468-330X
  • Journal article
    Yunus IS, Wichmann J, Wördenweber R, Lauersen KJ, Kruse O, Jones PRet al., 2018,

    Synthetic metabolic pathways for photobiological conversion of CO2 into hydrocarbon fuel

    , Metabolic Engineering, Vol: 49, Pages: 201-211, ISSN: 1096-7176

    Liquid fuels sourced from fossil sources are the dominant energy form for mobile transport today. The consumption of fossil fuels is still increasing, resulting in a continued search for more sustainable methods to renew our supply of liquid fuel. Photosynthetic microorganisms naturally accumulate hydrocarbons that could serve as a replacement for fossil fuel, however productivities remain low. We report successful introduction of five synthetic metabolic pathways in two green cell factories, prokaryotic cyanobacteria and eukaryotic algae. Heterologous thioesterase expression enabled high-yield conversion of native fatty acyl-acyl carrier protein (ACP) into free fatty acids (FFA) in Synechocystis sp. PCC 6803 but not in Chlamydomonas reinhardtii where the polar lipid fraction instead was enhanced. Despite no increase in measurable FFA in Chlamydomonas, genetic recoding and over-production of the native fatty acid photodecarboxylase (FAP) resulted in increased accumulation of 7-heptadecene. Implementation of a carboxylic acid reductase (CAR) and aldehyde deformylating oxygenase (ADO) dependent synthetic pathway in Synechocystis resulted in the accumulation of fatty alcohols and a decrease in the native saturated alkanes. In contrast, the replacement of CAR and ADO with Pseudomonas mendocina UndB (so named as it is responsible for 1-undecene biosynthesis in Pseudomonas) or Chlorella variabilis FAP resulted in high-yield conversion of thioesterase-liberated FFAs into corresponding alkenes and alkanes, respectively. At best, the engineering resulted in an increase in hydrocarbon accumulation of 8- (from 1 to 8.5 mg/g cell dry weight) and 19-fold (from 4 to 77 mg/g cell dry weight) for Chlamydomonas and Synechocystis, respectively. In conclusion, reconstitution of the eukaryotic algae pathway in the prokaryotic cyanobacteria host generated the most effective system, highlighting opportunities for mix-and-match synthetic metabolism. These studies describe functioning synt

  • Journal article
    O'Clery N, Yuan Y, Stan G-B, Barahona Met al., 2018,

    Global Network Prediction from Local Node Dynamics

    The study of dynamical systems on networks, describing complex interactiveprocesses, provides insight into how network structure affects globalbehaviour. Yet many methods for network dynamics fail to cope with large orpartially-known networks, a ubiquitous situation in real-world applications.Here we propose a localised method, applicable to a broad class of dynamicalmodels on networks, whereby individual nodes monitor and store the evolution oftheir own state and use these values to approximate, via a simple computation,their own steady state solution. Hence the nodes predict their own final statewithout actually reaching it. Furthermore, the localised formulation enablesnodes to compute global network metrics without knowledge of the full networkstructure. The method can be used to compute global rankings in the networkfrom local information; to detect community detection from fast, localtransient dynamics; and to identify key nodes that compute global networkmetrics ahead of others. We illustrate some of the applications of thealgorithm by efficiently performing web-page ranking for a large internetnetwork and identifying the dynamic roles of inter-neurons in the C. Elegansneural network. The mathematical formulation is simple, widely applicable andeasily scalable to real-world datasets suggesting how local computation canprovide an approach to the study of large-scale network dynamics.

  • Journal article
    Aw R, McKay P, Shattock R, Polizzi Ket al., 2018,

    A systematic analysis of the expression of the anti-HIV VRC01 antibody in Pichia pastoris through signal peptide optimization

    , Protein Expression and Purification, Vol: 149, Pages: 43-50, ISSN: 1046-5928

    Pichia pastoris (Komagataella phaffi) has been used for recombinant protein production for over 30 years with over 5000 proteins reported to date. However, yields of antibody are generally low. We have evaluated the effect of secretion signal peptides on the production of a broadly neutralizing antibody (VRC01) to increase yield. Eleven different signal peptides, including the murine IgG1 signal peptide, were combinatorially evaluated for their effect on antibody titer. Strains using different combinations of signal peptides were identified that secreted approximately 2-7 fold higher levels of VRC01 than the previous best secretor, with the highest yield of 6.50 mg L-1 in shake flask expression. Interestingly it was determined that the highest yields were achieved when the murine IgG1 signal peptide was fused to the light chain, with several different signal peptides leading to high yield when fused to the heavy chain. Finally, we have evaluated the effect of using a 2A signal peptide to create a bicistronic vector in the attempt to reduce burden and increase transformation efficiency, but found it to give reduced yields compared to using two independent vectors.

  • Journal article
    Yunus IS, Jones PR, 2018,

    Photosynthesis-dependent biosynthesis of medium chain-length fatty acids and alcohols

    , Metabolic Engineering, Vol: 49, Pages: 59-68, ISSN: 1096-7176

    Cyanobacteria can directly channel atmospheric CO2 into a wide range of versatile carbon products such as fatty acids and fatty alcohols with applications including fuel, cosmetics, and health products. Works on alcohol production in cyanobacteria have so far focused on either long (C12-C18) or short (C2-C4) chain-length products. In the present work, we report the first synthetic pathway for 1-octanol (C8) biosynthesis in Synechocystis sp. PCC 6803, employing a carboxylic acid reductase and C8-preferring fatty acyl-ACP thioesterase. The first engineered strain produced 1-octanol but exhibited poor productivity and cellular health issues. We therefore proceeded to systematically optimize the strain and cultivation conditions in order to understand what the limiting factors were. The identification of optimal promoters and ribosomal binding sites, in combination with isopropyl myristate solvent overlay, resulted in a combined (C8-OH and C10-OH) titer of more than 100 mg/L (a 25-fold improvement relative to the first engineered strain) and a restoration of cellular health. Additionally, more than 905 mg/L 1-octanol was produced when the strain expressing sfp (phosphopantetheinyl transferase) and car (carboxylic acid reductase) was fed with octanoic acid. A combination of feeding experiments and protein quantification indicated that the supply of octanoic acid from the introduced thioesterase, and possibly also native fatty acid synthesis pathway, were the main bottlenecks of the pathway.

  • Journal article
    Oling D, Lawenius L, Shaw W, Clark S, Kettleborough R, Ellis T, Larsson N, Wigglesworth Met al., 2018,

    Large Scale Synthetic Site Saturation GPCR Libraries Reveal Novel Mutations That Alter Glucose Signaling

    , ACS SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY, Vol: 7, Pages: 2317-2321, ISSN: 2161-5063
  • Journal article
    Ceroni F, Ellis T, 2018,

    The challenges facing synthetic biology in eukaryotes

    , Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology, Vol: 19, Pages: 481-482, ISSN: 1471-0072

    Synthetic biology is maturing into a true engineering discipline for model microorganisms, but remains far from straightforward for most eukaryotes. Here, we outline the key challenges facing those trying to engineer biology across eukaryota and suggest areas of focus that will aid future progress.

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