Harnessing the power of synthetic biology

10 January 2018 | Research
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The new Synthetic Biology R&D Programme will ensure holistic development of Singapore’s synthetic biology capabilities

The National Research Foundation Singapore (NRF) has announced a new Synthetic Biology Research and Development (R&D) Programme, which will be led by NUS Biochemistry Professor Chua Nam Hai, Deputy Chairman of Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory and renowned expert in plant biology and biotechnology. An inaugural grant call has selected a total of four projects to receive funding, out of which three will be carried out by NUS researchers.

The new R&D programme aims to advance the nation’s synthetic biology expertise as part of efforts to promote a bio-based economy built on deep science capabilities.

Synthetic biology — the engineering of microbial systems for the enhanced production of natural products — has the potential to replace current methods of chemical synthesis and extraction from natural products which are laborious, expensive and often produce low yields.

With the global push for sustainability and a reduced dependency on oil, this could transform manufacturing processes and health and nutrition, as well as grow new industries with high quality jobs.

The projects will bring together an interdisciplinary mix of people from various key local institutes to develop and consolidate a robust ecosystem to advance Singapore’s capabilities in synthetic biology.

The NRF will invest an initial $25 million over five years in the Synthetic Biology R&D Programme, which will be governed by a Steering Committee chaired by NUS Senior Deputy President and Provost Professor Ho Teck Hua.

The first of three awarded projects from NUS is led by Professor Markus Wenk from NUS Biochemistry, which will seek to develop highly sensitive and comprehensive analytical approaches based on liquid chromatography, mass spectrometry and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy for process control and optimisation within the Programme.

The second project by Associate Professor Matthew Chang, Director of the NUS Synthetic Biology for Clinical and Technological Innovation (SynCTI), looks to engineer microbes to enable the bioconversion of affordable and renewable substrates such as glucose into rare fatty acids needed by the chemical industry.

Lastly, Associate Professor Yew Wen Shan from SynCTI will explore novel biosynthetic pathways for the sustainable and proprietary production of national strains of medicinal cannabinoids derived from the cannabis plant for therapeutics that could be used to treat a range of diseases, such as those related to metabolism or reproduction, or age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. This will be done by translating selective genetic information provided by overseas partners into potent therapeutic compounds not found in nature through synthetic biology.

“The projects will bring together an interdisciplinary mix of people from various key local institutes to develop and consolidate a robust ecosystem to advance Singapore’s capabilities in synthetic biology,” said Prof Chua. He added that this “will ensure that our future Singapore has all the resources required for the production of multiple specialised chemicals through the synthetic biology approach”.