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UKRI Engineering Biology Missions award millions in funding to Imperial College London projects

February 20, 2024

Engineering biology applies rigorous engineering principles to design and build biological components and systems. This includes modifying natural systems and creating entirely new forms of artificial biology. It encompasses the entire innovation cycle, from breakthrough research in synthetic biology to translating those discoveries into real-world applications.

The UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) recently announced funding for four new engineering biology centers (or "hubs") led by or involving Imperial College London researchers. These virtual hubs will focus on collaborative efforts towards specific goals.

The Imperial-led hubs aim to develop new technologies in four key areas:

• Microbial food: Creating more sustainable and healthy food alternatives through fermentation processes;
• Gene therapy tools: Developing improved tools for gene therapy treatments;
• Plastic breakdown: Engineering microbes to break down plastic waste efficiently;
• Glycan biomanufacture: Producing complex sugar molecules (glycans) for use in medical applications.

Announcing the funding, Science, Research and Innovation Minister Andrew Griffith MP stated, "Engineering biology has the potential to transform our health and environment, from developing life-saving medicines to protecting our environment and food supply and beyond."

"With new Hubs and Mission Awards spread across the country, from Edinburgh to Portsmouth, we are supporting ambitious researchers and innovators around the UK in pioneering groundbreaking new solutions that can transform how we live our lives, while growing our economy."

Dr Rodrigo Ledesma-Amaro from Imperial's Department of Bioengineering

The £14 million (US$17.6 million) Microbial Food Hub is led by Dr Rodrigo Ledesma-Amaro from Imperial's Department of Bioengineering. Partners include universities from across the UK, research institutions, and multiple industrial and food organization partners.

Microbial foods, produced by microorganisms like yeast and fungi through fermentation, offer a more sustainable and healthier alternative to traditional food production methods. The Hub's goal is to develop novel fermentation-based foods that are better for the environment, more resilient to external shocks, and offer consumers healthier and tastier options.

Microbial food production offers several advantages:

• Rapid growth: Microbes reproduce quickly, reducing production time and resource requirements;
• Reduced land and water usage: Microbial food production requires less land and water compared to traditional methods;
• Waste valorization: Microbes can utilize waste products from existing food industries, promoting sustainability;
• Resilience: Microbial food production is less susceptible to adverse weather conditions and can be localized, reducing transport costs and carbon footprint.

This first-of-its-kind Hub brings together leading academics, industry partners, food organizations, and diverse end-users to advance research and development in microbial food production, with a clear path from fundamental research to commercialization.

The Hub will focus on three key areas of fermentation-based food products and ingredients:

• Biomass fermentation: Growing fungal cells with high nutritional value;
• Precision fermentation: Producing valuable ingredients using engineered microorganisms;
• Traditional fermentation: Using microbes to enhance the nutritional and taste profiles of plant-based products.

"Engineering biology is already being used to optimize microbial food production, and microbes can now be engineered to be more productive, tastier, and more nutritious," said Professor Ledesma-Amaro. "Applying recent scientific advancements to microbial foods has the potential to revolutionize food production, addressing critical health and sustainability challenges of our time."

Photo courtesy of Thomas Angus

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