Making waves in synthetic biology

13 October 2015 | Research
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From left: Assoc Prof Chang with SynCTI Principal Investigators Asst Prof Kim Chu-Young and Assoc Prof Yew Wen Shan

A new $25 million multidisciplinary research initiative in the emerging field of synthetic biology was officially launched on 30 September at the NUS Centre for Life Sciences Auditorium. The NUS Synthetic Biology for Clinical and Technological Innovation (SynCTI) programme aims to translate the development of novel biological systems into benefits for human health and environmental sustainability as well as train the next wave of synthetic biologists.

Synthetic biology combines disciplines such as biotechnology, evolutionary biology, molecular biology, systems biology, biophysics, computer engineering, and genetic engineering to create complex, biologically based or inspired systems, which display functions not found in nature. Potential applications include biosensing, therapeutics, and the production of biofuels, pharmaceuticals and novel biomaterials. It is estimated that the global market for synthetic biology will exceed $14 billion (US$10 billion) by 2016 and potentially serve as the next engine of economic growth in technologically advanced countries like Singapore.

"Synthetic biology is one of the most promising fields of modern science with far-reaching applications, many of which are still undiscovered and unexplored. NUS' strong leadership in translational research stands us in good stead to contribute towards developing Singapore as one of the leading synthetic biology hubs in the world, said Professor Barry Halliwell, Senior Advisor to NUS President, who launched the initiative.

The launch was followed by a two-day symposium featuring speakers from renowned global universities discussing topics ranging from therapeutics and biomimetics to solving societal challenges.

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Prof Halliwell said that the promising research being undertaken by SynCTI could have far-reaching applications

SynCTI will be helmed by Associate Professor Matthew Chang from NUS Biochemistry, who has 10 years of experience in the field. He will lead more than 60 research staff from NUS Engineering, NUS Science and Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine. The programme aims to train more than 90 synthetic biologists over the next three years.  

Its research activities are organised under six themes, namely:

  • Yeast Genome Project Part of an international consortium, it aims to synthesise and construct a modified version of the baker's yeast endowed with new functions and capabilities, paving the way for
    future breakthroughs, including the making of designer bread and wine. 
  • Microbial Cell Factories Microbial hosts are designed to produce biochemicals, fuels, nutraceuticals and pharmaceutical ingredients from inexpensive renewable raw materials.
  • Therapeutic Cells Designer probiotics are engineered with prophylactic and therapeutic properties to combat human infectious diseases, immune and metabolic disorders.
  • Bio-Lixiviant Engineering ' Microbes are repurposed for the recovery of precious metals, such as gold, from electronic waste.
  • Mammalian Synthetic Biology ' Designer mammalian cells are used in the discovery and production of new medicines.
  • Cell-free and Whole-cell Biosensors ' Biosensors are developed to detect disease-causing human pathogens, environmental pollutants, heavy metals and metabolites from cell factories.

SynCTI scientists will work closely with industry partners and leading research groups worldwide, including the University of California, Berkeley; Imperial College London and University of Edinburgh. The programme will be supported by seven laboratories boasting state-of-the-art facilities and will also host Singapore's only Synthetic Biology Foundry, where biological systems are designed and produced for translational research.

See press release and media coverage.