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York part of a successful synthetic biology research award of €4M

Posted on 29 August 2017

A consortium of 10 academic and industrial partners located across the EU, including Prof Mark Leake from York’s departments of Physics and Biology, has been awarded a research grant for the project ‘SynCrop’ to investigate and develop cutting-edge methods to improve food production using novel synthetic biology tools.

SynCrop, standing for ‘Synthetic Circuits for Robust Orthogonal Production’ involves a team of academics and industrialists led by Zoya Ignatova, from Hamburg University, Germany, who will work synergistically to generate a cohort of well-trained young scientists with interdisciplinary skills in quantitative biology, cell biophysics, cell engineering and microbial physiology.

Researchers with such a broad spectrum of training have been lacking due to the fragmentation of the emerging field of synthetic biology across Europe and because the need, nature and magnitude of these new skills are only now emerging. The SynCrop network will equip the Early Stage Researchers (ESRs), researchers studying for a PhD, with a unique combination of skills essential to become future research leaders or entrepreneurs in the emerging field of synthetic biology. The aim of the consortium is to provide invaluable training for these PhD
students across the 10 partners that will drive this research field forward and accelerate the development of novel production platforms for carbohydrate food products and vitamins at substantially reduced R&D costs.

The team will use a synthetic biology driven approach to generate a suite of ‘production circuits’ that work in tiny synthetically modified microbes across a range of different settings, from the laboratory to industry. To achieve their objectives, they have assembled a network of leading scientists with complementary expertise covering a broad range of disciplines, including quantitative biology and cell biophysics, cell engineering and microbial physiology. Their approach is augmented and intertwined with whole-cell mathematical modelling that will ultimately allow prediction of contextual effects between circuits and the host organism. A particular strength is the use of two ‘model organisms’ of E. coli bacteria, as occurs naturally in all of our guts, and yeast, the same yeast which is used to brew beer and make bread. These two microbes will enable two independent industrial platforms to be established, taking advantage of the natural scale-up in complexity from E. coli to yeast to more robustly develop mathematical models that describe production circuits across different species. The research programme will use novel technologies that have a cell-wide to single-molecule resolution to simultaneously measure the metabolome and transcriptome and to globally profile translation and lipid composition with an unprecedented depth of precision. Furthermore, these data will be integrated with microscopy approaches with high space and time resolution to assess the physical and chemical properties of the cell. The team of researchers will leverage the unique features of each host (eg the fast growth and small genetic content of E. coli, and the growth
robustness and infection-free growth at low pH of S. cerevisiae) to create robust industrial circuit production hosts. 

Prof Mark Leake, who will oversee York’s research contribution to the consortium, commented:

‘I am absolutely thrilled to be part of this exciting team of researchers. The EU consortium awards are truly invaluable at providing invaluable training for the new leaders of important, emerging scientific fields – they essentially enable students to be part of a graduate doctoral training cohort whilst allowing them to learn from the best of the best across different labs in the whole of the EU, which fortunately still includes the UK. It is a genuinely unique opportunity to learn a wide range of multidisciplinary skills that straddle biology, chemistry, maths, computing science and physics. My hope is that these projects will result not only in exciting new developments in the field of synthetic biology, but will also serve to seed new initiatives between York and a suite of international leaders in the field. It is difficult currently to see how the engagement of the UK with the EU funding landscape will be structured post-Brexit in the years to come, but right now this research award represents a really fantastic opportunity to York and the UK generally.’

The award has been funded as an ‘Innovative Training Network’ (ITN) as part of the Marie Curie Horizon 2020 Programme.