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Major new funding for industrial biotechnology in York

Posted on 7 December 2015

Scientists at the University of York are to benefit from major Government funding for new industrial biotechnology and bioenergy research.

Young oil palm monoculture in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo (credit: Sarah Scriven). The Industrial Biotechnology Catalyst fund will help York scientists to develop a substitute for palm oil.

York is a key player in all three large translation grants awarded through the Industrial Biotechnology Catalyst fund announced by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), which is also supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and Innovate UK (IUK).

Dr Gavin Thomas, of the Department of Biology, and Dr Tony Larson, in the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products (CNAP), with colleagues at the Universities of Sheffield, Nottingham and Cambridge and five companies, Green Biologics, ReBio, Lucite, CPI and Ingenza, will lead a £3 million project to improve ways microbes can be used in biotechnology to synthesise chemicals.

The research aims to overcome one of the most common limitations, namely, that at high concentrations, microbes often intoxicate themselves and hence limit the overall productivity of the system. In the five-year project, named DeTox, the researchers will employ a range of industrially relevant systems, to discover how small molecules poison cells. Using this knowledge and engineered alterations to membrane function, they will produce bacterial strains with increased resistance to product inhibition. The project is the result of academic/industry interactions at the Crossing Biological Membrane Network in Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy, of which Dr Thomas is a director.

Dr Thomas said: “We have a fantastic opportunity here over a five-year program to really understand at the physiological level what happens when bacteria poison themselves and then use modern genetic and synthetic biology methods to engineer solutions that will allow them to tolerate the poison better. Being able to do fundamental research that also has clear and immediate benefits for UK industry is really very exciting.”

Professor James Clark, Dr Avtar Matharu and Dr Vitaliy Budarin of the Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence, Department of Chemistry, are part of a £4.4 million project led by York alumnus Dr Chris Chuck at the University of Bath. The cutting-edge translational research aims to significantly enhance industrial production of high value chemicals using the combination of York microwave technology with Bath’s novel yeast grown on sustainably-sourced waste feedstocks thus replacing currently used palm oil.

York will apply their key enabling microwave technology to selectively depolymerize large volume waste feedstocks making them more amenable to fermentation.  The York technology allows ‘more for less’. The University of Bath team will improve the genetic understanding and control of their novel yeast, scale-up the fermentation to an industrial scale and assess the total environmental impact across the life cycle. The project, involving industrial partners AB Agri, C-Tech Innovation and Croda, is supporting an industrial supply chain covering feedstock to engineering to products and applications.

Professor Clark said: “This is a great opportunity for an outstanding multidisciplinary team to integrate cutting edge bio- and chem-technologies to tackle a major global resources challenge.”

Dr Alison Parkin, of the Department of Chemistry at York, is a partner in a £2 million project, led by Professor Kylie Vincent, of the University of Oxford, to develop a clever enzymatic approach to improve biocatalysis. The project aims to remove major bottlenecks in the production of a range of important pharmaceuticals, flavours or fragrances by focusing on the use of enzymes called hydrogenases which can split hydrogen. DrParkin is an expert in the biochemistry of hydrogenase enzymes and how they have evolved a resistance to inactivation by oxygen.

Dr Parkin added: “Enzymes already play a vital role in Industrial processing and this grant will enable us to showcase how bio-catalysts can enable us to harness the power of the World’s smallest molecule, dihydrogen, to achieve chemistry on a global scale.”

Reflecting on these new successes, Professor Clark added “York has invested heavily in the integration of biology and chemistry expertise and its translation towards commercialisation though the Bio-renewables Development Centre and the new Biovale initiative.  These new funding successes are a clear demonstration of the success of this approach – when it comes to industrial biotechnology, York is the place to be!”

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