UKRI Engineering Biology Missions award millions in funding to Imperial projects

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UKRI has awarded millions in funding for Imperial projects, through their new Engineering Biology Missions.

Engineering biology is the application of rigorous engineering principles to the design and fabrication of biological components and systems, from modifications of natural systems to new forms of artificial biology. It encompasses the entire innovation ecosystem, from breakthrough synthetic biology research to translation and application. 

Engineering biology has the power to transform our health and environment, from developing life-saving medicines to protecting our environment and food supply and beyond. Andrew Griffith MP Science, Research and Innovation Minister

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) will fund four new engineering biology bodies that are led by or involve Imperial College London researchers, as virtual centres or ‘hubs’ whose members work towards a shared goal.

The Imperial-related Hubs aim to create new technologies for engineering microbial food, gene therapy tools, breaking down plastics, and glycan biomanufacture for health. 

Announcing the funding, the Science, Research and Innovation Minister, Andrew Griffith MP, said: “Engineering biology has the power to transform our health and environment, from developing life-saving medicines to protecting our environment and food supply and beyond.

“With new Hubs and Mission Awards spread across the country, from Edinburgh to Portsmouth, we are supporting ambitious researchers and innovators around the UK in pioneering groundbreaking new solutions which can transform how we live our lives, while growing our economy.” 

Developing sustainable microbial foods  

The £14m Microbial Food Hub is led by Imperial’s Dr Rodrigo Ledesma-Amaro from the Department of Bioengineering. Partners include the universities of Reading, Kent, Aberystwyth, Cambridge, Rothamsted Research, and multiple industrial and food organisation partners. 

Applying recent scientific developments to microbial foods has the potential to radically change the way food is produced, creating an important and timely opportunity to address some of the most critical health and sustainability challenges of our time. Dr Rodrigo Ledesma-Amaro Department of Bioengineering

Microbial foods, which are foods produced by microorganisms such as yeast and fungi through fermentation, offer a more sustainable, healthier alternative to some of our current ways of producing food. Their aim is to develop novel fermentation-based food that is better for the environment, more resilient to climatic or political shocks, and that gives consumers healthier and tastier food.    

Microbes are ideal for this because they grow rapidly, don’t need large amounts of land or water, and can feed on waste products from our existing food industries. The foods they produce are less susceptible to adverse weather and can be produced locally; reducing transport costs, carbon footprint and our dependence on imported food. 

The first of its kind in the world, the Microbial Food Hub brings together world-leading academics, industrial partners, food organisations and diverse end-users in a wide-ranging and ambitious programme of work that provides a clear pipeline from fundamental research to commercialisation. 

The Hub will focus on fermentation-based food products and ingredients, which includes biomass fermentation (growing fungal cells with high nutritional properties), precision fermentation (producing valuable ingredients using engineered microorganisms) and traditional fermentation (using microbes to transform and improve the nutrition and taste of basic plant products).  

Professor Ledesma-Amaro said: “Engineering biology is already being used to optimise microbial food production, and microbes can now be manipulated to be more productive, tastier and more nutritious. Applying recent scientific developments to microbial foods has the potential to radically change the way food is produced, creating an important and timely opportunity to address some of the most critical health and sustainability challenges of our time.” 

Imperial co-investigators include Professors Paul Freemont (Department of Infectious Disease), Karen Polizzi (Department of Chemical Engineering), Gary Frost (Department of Metabolism, Digestion and Reproduction), Tom Ellis (Department of Bioengineering) and Geoff Baldwin (Department of Life Sciences). 

Gene therapy tools 

The £14.2m Engineered Genetic Control Systems for Advanced Therapeutics Mission Hub is led by the University of Edinburgh, with £1.2m awarded to Imperial partners. Co-Investigators Professor Mark Isalan and Professor Geoff Baldwin are both from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial. 

The Hub will investigate engineering biology for new cell and gene therapies. Gene therapy is a technique that modifies a person's genes to treat or cure disease. Gene therapies can work by several mechanisms: replacing a disease-causing gene with a healthy copy of the gene, inactivating a disease-causing gene that is not functioning correctly, or introducing a new or modified gene (transgene) to help treat a disease. 

For gene therapies to be effective and safe they need to express the transgene in the right tissue, at the right level, for the right amount of time and to be delivered efficiently to the correct tissues. The Hub members will develop a series of engineered genetic control systems for use in gene therapies, both to control expression of the therapeutic transgene and in enhanced delivery systems into cells. They will then test them in three applications: oncology (cancer), cardiovascular disease, and rare diseases. 

Breaking down plastics 

The £12.9m Preventing Plastic Pollution with Engineering Biology (P3EB) Mission Hub is led by the University of Portsmouth, with £945,000 awarded to Imperial co-investigator Dr Jose Jimenez from the Department of Life Sciences

Plastics are synthetic polymers – chains of building blocks linked together by chemical bonds – that are not naturally found in the environment, and often made from oil. Biological polymers can be broken down by naturally occurring enzymes that deconstruct them back into their constituent building blocks (monomers). Synthetic plastics cannot be broken down by natural enzymes, which is one reason they are so durable. This means however that they can end up unintentionally polluting the environment, releasing toxic chemicals and harming wildlife. 

The team will engineer enzymes and microbes that perform better at chosen tasks, driving them towards breaking down a wide range of plastics. They will prioritise the most harmful and commonly produced synthetic plastics: PET, polyurethane, polycarbonate and nylon. They will also develop environmentally friendly, innovative methods to repurpose plastics when they reach the end of their life as waste, redirecting their monomers to higher quality goods and reducing the need to use virgin oils. 

These efforts will support UK businesses in meeting their carbon reduction goals, contribute to sustainable clean growth, and help incentivise plastic waste recovery and recycling to prevent pollution and the use of fossil fuels, from which most plastics are derived.  

Transforming glycan biomanufacture for health 

The £12.3m GlycoCell Engineering Biology Mission Hub is led by the University of Nottingham and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, with £3.85m awarded to Imperial co-investigators Professors Karen Polizzi from the Department of Chemical Engineering at Imperial, as well as Professors Anne Dell and Stuart Haslam, both from the Department of Life Sciences

Glycans, or sugars, have a huge impact on the biological processes that sustain all domains of life. They are therefore key targets for many of the vaccines and treatments humans rely on to treat infectious diseases caused by bacteria and viruses. 

Vaccines are the most effective way to prevent infections and are proven to reduce antimicrobial usage. The most successful vaccines against bacteria are glycoconjugates (glycans linked to proteins), which provide robust and lasting immunity in all age groups. However, manufacturing glycoconjugate vaccines is costly, which limits their affordability for patients in resource-poor settings or in veterinary medicine. 

This new Hub offers a new lower-cost method of glycoengineering to link glycans to proteins. Its  members aim to create more effective vaccines, develop better therapies and diagnostics, and generate tools to more efficiently study health and disease. 

GlycoCell builds on researchers’ previous successes and expertise in glycotechnology and engineering biology, with a vision to scale and deploy a 'GlycoForge' facility as a UK national asset.  

The GlycoForge will combine high-throughput automation, elegant experiment design, and advanced mathematical methods to rapidly engineer cells to make new glycans.  

This Hub will also use the GlycoForge to further develop bacteria and yeast cells to produce human-relevant glycans as novel therapeutics. This work will be supported by Imperial’s world-leading facilities for analysis of glycans.

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Hayley Dunning

Hayley Dunning
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Email: h.dunning@imperial.ac.uk

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Caroline Brogan

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Energy, Environment, Molecular-sciences, Sustainability, Bacteria, Fungal-Science, Engineering-Chemical-Eng, Drugs, Food-security, Synthetic-biology, Research, Engineering-Bioeng, Industry
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