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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
    Kuntz Nussio J, Thomas P, Stan G, Barahona Met al., 2020,

    Approximations of countably-infinite linear programs over bounded measure spaces

    , SIAM Journal on Optimization, ISSN: 1052-6234

    We study a class of countably-infinite-dimensional linear programs (CILPs)whose feasible sets are bounded subsets of appropriately defined spaces ofmeasures. The optimal value, optimal points, and minimal points of these CILPscan be approximated by solving finite-dimensional linear programs. We show howto construct finite-dimensional programs that lead to approximations witheasy-to-evaluate error bounds, and we prove that the errors converge to zero asthe size of the finite-dimensional programs approaches that of the originalproblem. We discuss the use of our methods in the computation of the stationarydistributions, occupation measures, and exit distributions of Markov~chains.

  • Journal article
    Kuntz J, Thomas P, Stan G-B, Barahona Met al., 2020,

    Stationary distributions of continuous-time Markov chains: a review of theory and truncation-based approximations

    , SIAM Review, ISSN: 0036-1445

    Computing the stationary distributions of a continuous-time Markov chaininvolves solving a set of linear equations. In most cases of interest, thenumber of equations is infinite or too large, and cannot be solved analyticallyor numerically. Several approximation schemes overcome this issue by truncatingthe state space to a manageable size. In this review, we first give acomprehensive theoretical account of the stationary distributions and theirrelation to the long-term behaviour of the Markov chain, which is readilyaccessible to non-experts and free of irreducibility assumptions made instandard texts. We then review truncation-based approximation schemes payingparticular attention to their convergence and to the errors they introduce, andwe illustrate their performance with an example of a stochastic reactionnetwork of relevance in biology and chemistry. We conclude by elaborating oncomputational trade-offs associated with error control and some open questions.

  • Journal article
    Cabello-Garcia J, Bae W, Stan G-BV, Ouldridge TEet al., 2021,

    Handhold-Mediated Strand Displacement: A Nucleic Acid Based Mechanism for Generating Far-from-Equilibrium Assemblies through Templated Reactions.

    , ACS Nano

    The use of templates is a well-established method for the production of sequence-controlled assemblies, particularly long polymers. Templating is canonically envisioned as akin to a self-assembly process, wherein sequence-specific recognition interactions between a template and a pool of monomers favor the assembly of a particular polymer sequence at equilibrium. However, during the biogenesis of sequence-controlled polymers, template recognition interactions are transient; RNA and proteins detach spontaneously from their templates to perform their biological functions and allow template reuse. Breaking template recognition interactions puts the product sequence distribution far from equilibrium, since specific product formation can no longer rely on an equilibrium dominated by selective copy-template bonds. The rewards of engineering artificial polymer systems capable of spontaneously exhibiting nonequilibrium templating are large, but fields like DNA nanotechnology lack the requisite tools; the specificity and drive of conventional DNA reactions rely on product stability at equilibrium, sequestering any recognition interaction in products. The proposed alternative is handhold-mediated strand displacement (HMSD), a DNA-based reaction mechanism suited to producing out-of-equilibrium products. HMSD decouples the drive and specificity of the reaction by introducing a transient recognition interaction, the handhold. We measure the kinetics of 98 different HMSD systems to prove that handholds can accelerate displacement by 4 orders of magnitude without being sequestered in the final product. We then use HMSD to template the selective assembly of any one product DNA duplex from an ensemble of equally stable alternatives, generating a far-from-equilibrium output. HMSD thus brings DNA nanotechnology closer to the complexity of out-of-equilibrium biological systems.

  • Journal article
    Gilbert C, Tang T-C, Ott W, Dorr B, Shaw W, Sun G, Lu T, Ellis Tet al., 2021,

    Living materials with programmable functionalities grown from engineered microbial co-cultures

    , Nature Materials, ISSN: 1476-1122

    Biological systems assemble living materials that are autonomously patterned, can self-repair and can sense and respond to their environment. The field of engineered living materials aims to create novel materials with properties similar to those of natural biomaterials using genetically-engineered organisms. Here we describe an approach to fabricate functional bacterial cellulose-based living materials using a stable co-culture of Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast and bacterial cellulose-producing Komagataeibacter rhaeticus bacteria. Yeast strains can be engineered to secrete enzymes into bacterial cellulose, generating autonomously grown catalytic materials and enabling DNA-encoded modification of bacterial cellulose bulk properties. Alternatively, engineered yeast can be incorporated within the growing cellulose matrix, creating living materials that can sense and respond to chemical and optical stimuli. This symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast is a flexible platform for the production of bacterial cellulosed-based engineered living materials with potential applications in biosensing and biocatalysis.

  • Journal article
    Sarvari P, Ingram D, Stan G-B, 2021,

    A Modelling Framework Linking Resource-Based Stochastic Translation to the Optimal Design of Synthetic Constructs

    , Biology, ISSN: 2079-7737
  • Journal article
    Niu T, Lv X, Liu Y, Li J, Du G, Ledesma-Amaro R, Liu Let al., 2021,

    The elucidation of phosphosugar stress response in Bacillus subtilis guides strain engineering for high N-acetylglucosamine production.

    , Biotechnology and Bioengineering, Vol: 118, Pages: 383-396, ISSN: 0006-3592

    Bacillus subtilis is a preferred microbial host for the industrial production of nutraceuticals and a promising candidate for the synthesis of functional sugars, such as N-acetylglucosamine (GlcNAc). Previously, a GlcNAc-overproducer Bacillus subtilis SFMI was constructed using glmS ribozyme dual regulatory tool. Herein, we further engineered to enhance carbon flux from glucose towards GlcNAc synthesis. As a result, the increased flux towards GlcNAc synthesis triggered phosphosugar stress response, which caused abnormal cell growth. Unfortunately, the mechanism of phosphosugar stress response had not been elucidated in B. subtilis. In order to reveal stress mechanism and overcome its negative effect in bioproduction, we performed comparative transcriptome analysis. The results indicate that cells slow glucose utilization by repression of glucose import and accelerate catabolic reactions of phosphosugar. To verify these results, we overexpressed the phosphatase YwpJ, which relieved phosphosugar stress and allowed us to identify the enzyme responsible for GlcNAc synthesis from GlcNAc6P. In addition, the deletion of nagBB and murQ, responsible for GlcNAc precursor degradation, further improved GlcNAc synthesis. The best engineered strain, B. subtilis FMIP34, increased GlcNAc titer from 11.5 to 26.1 g/L in shake flasks and produced 87.5 g/L GlcNAc in 30-L fed-batch bioreactor. Our results not only elucidate, for the first time, the phosphosugar stress response mechanism in B. subtilis, but also demonstrate how the combination of rational metabolic engineering with novel insights into physiology and metabolism allows the construction of highly efficient microbial cell factories for the production of high value chemicals. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.

  • Journal article
    Mielcarek M, Isalan M, 2021,

    Polyglutamine diseases: looking beyond the neurodegenerative universe

    , Neural Regeneration Research, Vol: 16, Pages: 1186-1187, ISSN: 1673-5374
  • Journal article
    Vidal LS, Ayala R, Stan G-B, Ledesma Amaro Ret al.,

    rfaRm: an R client-side interface to facilitate the analysis of the Rfam database of RNA families: Automated identification and annotation of non-coding RNA

    , PLoS One, ISSN: 1932-6203
  • Journal article
    Berengut J, Kui Wong C, Berengut J, Doye J, Ouldridge T, Lee Let al., 2020,

    Self-limiting polymerization of DNA origami subunits with strain accumulation

    , ACS Nano, Vol: 14, Pages: 17428-17441, ISSN: 1936-0851

    Biology demonstrates how a near infinite array of complex systems and structures at many scales can originate from the self-assembly of component parts on the nanoscale. But to fully exploit the benefits of self-assembly for nanotechnology, a crucial challenge remains: How do we rationally encode well-defined global architectures in subunits that are much smaller than their assemblies? Strain accumulation via geometric frustration is one mechanism that has been used to explain the self-assembly of global architectures in diverse and complex systems a posteriori. Here we take the next step and use strain accumulation as a rational design principle to control the length distributions of self-assembling polymers. We use the DNA origami method to design and synthesize a molecular subunit known as the PolyBrick, which perturbs its shape in response to local interactions via flexible allosteric blocking domains. These perturbations accumulate at the ends of polymers during growth, until the deformation becomes incompatible with further extension. We demonstrate that the key thermodynamic factors for controlling length distributions are the intersubunit binding free energy and the fundamental strain free energy, both which can be rationally encoded in a PolyBrick subunit. While passive polymerization yields geometrical distributions, which have the highest statistical length uncertainty for a given mean, the PolyBrick yields polymers that approach Gaussian length distributions whose variance is entirely determined by the strain free energy. We also show how strain accumulation can in principle yield length distributions that become tighter with increasing subunit affinity and approach distributions with uniform polymer lengths. Finally, coarse-grained molecular dynamics and Monte Carlo simulations delineate and quantify the dominant forces influencing strain accumulation in a molecular system. This study constitutes a fundamental investigation of the use of strain accumula

  • Journal article
    Ouldridge T, Stan G-B, Bae W, 2021,

    In situ generation of RNA complexes for synthetic molecular strand displacement circuits in autonomous systems

    , Nano Letters: a journal dedicated to nanoscience and nanotechnology, Vol: 21, Pages: 265-271, ISSN: 1530-6984

    Synthetic molecular circuits implementing DNA or RNA strand-displacement reactions can be used to build complex systems such as molecular computers and feedback control systems. Despite recent advances, application of nucleic acid-based circuits in vivo remains challenging due to a lack of efficient methods to produce their essential components, namely, multistranded complexes known as gates, in situ, i.e., in living cells or other autonomous systems. Here, we propose the use of naturally occurring self-cleaving ribozymes to cut a single-stranded RNA transcript into a gate complex of shorter strands, thereby opening new possibilities for the autonomous and continuous production of RNA strands in a stoichiometrically and structurally controlled way.

  • Journal article
    Aw R, De Wachter C, Laukens B, De Rycke R, De Bruyne M, Bell D, Callewaert N, Polizzi KMet al., 2020,

    Knockout of RSN1 , TVP18 or CSC1 ‐2 causes perturbation of Golgi cisternae in Pichia pastoris

    , Traffic, ISSN: 1398-9219

    The structural organization of the Golgi stacks in mammalian cells is intrinsically linked to function, including glycosylation, but the role of morphology is less clear in lower eukaryotes. Here we investigated the link between the structural organization of the Golgi and secretory pathway function using Pichia pastoris as a model system. To unstack the Golgi cisternae, we disrupted 18 genes encoding proteins in the secretory pathway without loss of viability. Using biosensors, confocal microscopy and transmission electron microscopy we identified three strains with irreversible perturbations in the stacking of the Golgi cisternae, all of which had disruption in genes that encode proteins with annotated function as or homology to calcium/calcium permeable ion channels. Despite this, no variation in the secretory pathway for ER size, whole cell glycomics or recombinant protein glycans was observed. Our investigations showed the robust nature of the secretory pathway in P. pastoris and suggest that Ca2+ concentration, homeostasis or signalling may play a significant role for Golgi stacking in this organism and should be investigated in other organisms.

  • Journal article
    Aw R, Spice AJ, Polizzi K, 2020,

    Methods for expression of recombinant proteins using a Pichia pastoris cell-free system

    , Current protocols in protein science, Vol: 102, ISSN: 1934-3655

    Cell‐free protein synthesis is a powerful tool for engineering biology and has been utilized in many diverse applications, from biosensing and protein prototyping to biomanufacturing and the design of metabolic pathways. By exploiting host cellular machinery decoupled from cellular growth, proteins can be produced in vitro both on demand and rapidly. Eukaryotic cell‐free platforms are often neglected due to perceived complexity and low yields relative to their prokaryotic counterparts, despite providing a number of advantageous properties. The yeast Pichia pastoris (also known as Komagataella phaffii) is a particularly attractive eukaryotic host from which to generate cell‐free extracts, due to its ability to grow to high cell densities with high volumetric productivity, genetic tractability for strain engineering, and ability to perform post‐translational modifications. Here, we describe methods for conducting cell‐free protein synthesis using P. pastoris as the host, from preparing the cell lysates to protocols for both coupled and linked transcription‐translation reactions. By providing these methodologies, we hope to encourage the adoption of the platform by new and experienced users alike.

  • Journal article
    Deshpande A, Ouldridge T, 2020,

    Optimizing enzymatic catalysts for rapid turnover of substrates with low enzyme sequestration

    , Biological Cybernetics: communication and control in organisms and automata, Vol: 114, Pages: 653-668, ISSN: 0340-1200

    Enzymes are central to both metabolism and information processing in cells. In both cases, an enzyme’s ability to accelerate a reaction without being consumed in the reaction is crucial. Nevertheless, enzymes are transiently sequestered when they bind to their substrates; this sequestration limits activity and potentially compromises information processing and signal transduction. In this article, we analyse the mechanism of enzyme–substrate catalysis from the perspective of minimizing the load on the enzymes through sequestration, while maintaining at least a minimum reaction flux. In particular, we ask: which binding free energies of the enzyme–substrate and enzyme–product reaction intermediates minimize the fraction of enzymes sequestered in complexes, while sustaining a certain minimal flux? Under reasonable biophysical assumptions, we find that the optimal design will saturate the bound on the minimal flux and reflects a basic trade-off in catalytic operation. If both binding free energies are too high, there is low sequestration, but the effective progress of the reaction is hampered. If both binding free energies are too low, there is high sequestration, and the reaction flux may also be suppressed in extreme cases. The optimal binding free energies are therefore neither too high nor too low, but in fact moderate. Moreover, the optimal difference in substrate and product binding free energies, which contributes to the thermodynamic driving force of the reaction, is in general strongly constrained by the intrinsic free-energy difference between products and reactants. Both the strategies of using a negative binding free-energy difference to drive the catalyst-bound reaction forward and of using a positive binding free-energy difference to enhance detachment of the product are limited in their efficacy.

  • Journal article
    He Q, Szczepańska P, Yuzbashev T, Lazar Z, Ledesma-Amaro Ret al., 2020,

    De novo production of resveratrol from glycerol by engineering different metabolic pathways in Yarrowia lipolytica

    , Metabolic Engineering Communications, Vol: 11, ISSN: 2214-0301

    Resveratrol is a polyphenol with multiple applications in pharma, cosmetics and food. The aim of this study was to construct Yarrowia lipolytica strains able to produce resveratrol. For this purpose, resveratrol-biosynthesis genes from bacteria and plants were expressed in this host. Since resveratrol can be produced either via tyrosine or phenylaniline, both pathways were tested, first with a single copy and then with two copies. The phenylalanine pathway resulted in slightly higher production in glucose media, although when the media was supplemented with amino acids, the best production was found in the strain with two copies of the tyrosine pathway, which reached 0.085 ​g/L. When glucose was replaced by glycerol, a preferred substrate for bioproduction, the best results, 0.104 ​g/L, were obtained in a strain combining the expression of the two synthesis pathways. Finally, the best producer strain was tested in bioreactor conditions where a production of 0.43 ​g/L was reached. This study suggests that Y. lipolytica is a promising host for resveratrol production from glycerol.

  • Journal article
    Moore SJ, Lai H-E, Chee S-M, Toh M, Coode S, Capel P, Corre C, de los Santos ELC, Freemont PSet al., 2020,

    A Streptomyces venezuelae Cell-Free Toolkit for Synthetic Biology

    <jats:title>Abstract</jats:title><jats:p>Prokaryotic cell-free coupled transcription-translation (TX-TL) systems are emerging as a powerful tool to examine natural product biosynthetic pathways in a test-tube. The key advantages of this approach are the reduced experimental timescales and controlled reaction conditions. In order to realise this potential, specialised cell-free systems in organisms enriched for biosynthetic gene clusters, with strong protein production and well-characterised synthetic biology tools, is essential. The <jats:italic>Streptomyces</jats:italic> genus is a major source of natural products. To study enzymes and pathways from <jats:italic>Streptomyces</jats:italic>, we originally developed a homologous <jats:italic>Streptomyces</jats:italic> cell-free system to provide a native protein folding environment, a high G+C (%) tRNA pool and an active background metabolism. However, our initial yields were low (36 μg/mL) and showed a high level of batch-to-batch variation. Here, we present an updated high-yield and robust <jats:italic>Streptomyces</jats:italic> TX-TL protocol, reaching up to yields of 266 μg/mL of expressed recombinant protein. To complement this, we rapidly characterise a range of DNA parts with different reporters, express high G+C (%) biosynthetic genes and demonstrate an initial proof of concept for combined transcription, translation and biosynthesis of <jats:italic>Streptomyces</jats:italic> metabolic pathways in a single ‘one-pot’ reaction.</jats:p>

  • Journal article
    Miyano T, Tanaka R, 2020,

    Identification of keratinocyte subpopulations in transcriptome to evaluate drug effects in atopic dermatitis

    , British Journal of Dermatology, ISSN: 0007-0963
  • Journal article
    Moya-Ramirez I, Bouton C, Kontoravdi C, Polizzi Ket al., 2020,

    High resolution biosensor to test the capping level and integrity of mRNAs

    , Nucleic Acids Research, ISSN: 0305-1048

    5 Cap structures are ubiquitous on eukaryotic mRNAs, essential for post-transcriptional processing,translation initiation and stability. Here we describea biosensor designed to detect the presence of capstructures on mRNAs that is also sensitive to mRNAdegradation, so uncapped or degraded mRNAs canbe detected in a single step. The biosensor is basedon a chimeric protein that combines the recognitionand transduction roles in a single molecule. The mainfeature of this sensor is its simplicity, enabling semiquantitative analyses of capping levels with minimalinstrumentation. The biosensor was demonstratedto detect the capping level on several in vitro transcribed mRNAs. Its sensitivity and dynamic rangeremained constant with RNAs ranging in size from250 nt to approximately 2700 nt and the biosensorwas able to detect variations in the capping level inincrements of at least 20%, with a limit of detection of2.4 pmol. Remarkably, it also can be applied to morecomplex analytes, such mRNA vaccines and mRNAstranscribed in vivo. This biosensor is an innovativeexample of a technology able to detect analyticallychallenging structures such as mRNA caps. It couldfind application in a variety of scenarios, from qualityanalysis of mRNA-based products such as vaccinesto optimization of in vitro capping reactions.

  • Journal article
    Liu Y, Su A, Li J, Ledesma-Amaro R, Xu P, Du G, Liu Let al., 2020,

    Towards next-generation model microorganism chassis for biomanufacturing

    , Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology, Vol: 104, Pages: 9095-9108, ISSN: 0175-7598

    Synthetic biology provides powerful tools and novel strategies for designing and modifying microorganisms to function as cell factories for biomanufacturing, which is a promising approach for realizing chemical production in a green and sustainable manner. Recent advances in genetic component design and genome engineering have enabled significant progresses in the field of synthetic biology chassis that have been developed for enzymes or biochemical production based on synthetic biology strategies, with particular reference to model microorganisms, such as Escherichia coli, Bacillus subtilis, Corynebacterium glutamicum, and Saccharomyces cerevisiae. In this review, strategies for engineering four different functional cellular modules which encompass the total process of biomanufacturing are discussed, including expanding the substrate spectrum for substrate uptake modules, refactoring biosynthetic pathways and dynamic regulation for product synthesis modules, balancing energy and redox modules, and cell membrane and cell wall engineering of product storage and secretion modules. Novel strategies of integrating and coordinating different cellular modules aided by synthetic co-culturing of multiple chassis, artificial intelligence–aided data mining for guiding strain development, and the process for designing automatic chassis development via biofoundry are expected to generate next generations of model microorganism chassis for more efficient biomanufacturing.

  • Journal article
    Hurault G, Domínguez-Hüttinger E, Langan S, Williams H, Tanaka Ret al., 2020,

    Personalised prediction of daily eczema severity scores using a mechanistic machine learning model

    , Clinical and Experimental Allergy, Vol: 50, Pages: 1258-1266, ISSN: 0954-7894

    Background: A topic dermatitis (AD) is a chronic inflammatory skin disease with periods of flares and remission. Designing personalised treatment strategies for AD is challenging, given the apparent unpredictability and large variation in AD symptoms and treatment responses within and across individuals.Better prediction of AD severity over time for individual patients could help to select optimum timing and type of treatment for improving disease control.Objective: We aimed to develop a proof-of-principle mechanistic machine learning model that predicts the patient-specific evolution of AD severity scores on a daily basis.Methods: We designed a probabilistic predictive model and trained it using Bayesian inference with the longitudinal data from two published clinical studies. The data consisted of daily recordings of AD severity scores and treatments used by 59 and 334 AD children ove r6 months and 16 weeks, respectively. Validation of the predictive model was conducted in a forward-chaining setting.Results: Our model was able to predict future severity scores at the individual level and improved chance-level forecast by 60%. Heterogeneous patterns in severity trajectories were captured with patient-specific parameters such as the short-term persistence of AD severity and responsiveness to topical steroids, calcineurin inhibitors and step-up treatment.Conclusions: Our proof of principle model successfully predicted the daily evolution of AD severity scores at an individual level,and could inform the design of personalised treatment strategies that can be tested in future studies.Our model-based approach can be applied to other diseases such as asthma with apparent unpredictability and large variation in symptoms and treatment responses.

  • Journal article
    Beal J, Farny NG, Haddock-Angelli T, Selvarajah V, Baldwin GS, Buckley-Taylor R, Gershater M, Kiga D, Marken J, Sanchania V, Sison A, Workman CTet al., 2020,

    Robust estimation of bacterial cell count from optical density (vol 3, 512, 2020)


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