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Engineering Biology in Cambridge

A purple background with a blue banner a white text reading “Engineering Biology Mission Hubs and Mission Awards”. The BBSRC logo is in the top left corner.

Cambridge researchers led four successful bids for UKRI's new Engineering Biology Mission Awards, as well as collaborating on a Mission Hub Award. Their work will address challenges in the areas of clean growth, biomedicine and food systems.

In 2023, the Department for Science Innovation and Technology announced Engineering Biology as one of the five top priorities for UK research. Following this, UKRI released a £100m Fund for Engineering Biology Mission Hubs and Mission Awards. These awards aim to unlock the potential of engineering biology to address global challenges.

The six Mission Hubs will be funded for five years and receive up to £12m each. The twenty-two Mission Awards will be funded for two years and receive a share of £30 million funding. Researchers at the University of Cambridge were part of successful bids for one Mission Hub and five Mission Awards.

Engineering biology has the power 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 which can transform how we live our lives, while growing our economy.”  Andrew Griffith, Science, Research and Innovation Minister

Mission Hub

Preventing Plastic Pollution with Engineering Biology (P3EB) Mission Hub

The University of Portsmouth, Bangor University, University of Cambridge, University of Edinburgh, Imperial College London, University of Manchester, and University College London

Mission area theme: environmental solutions and clean growth

Led by Prof. Andy Pickford at the University of Portsmouth’s Centre for Enzyme Innovation (CEI), the hub will focus on engineering enzymes for plastic recycling.

The team at Cambridge will be headed by Prof. Florian Hollfelder in the Department of Biochemistry.

You can find out more about the work of these researchers on their websites:

Centre for Enzyme InnovationHollfelder Lab

Mission Awards

OpenBioMAPS: shared tools for accelerating UK bio-manufacturing

Prof. Jim Haseloff (Department of Plant Sciences), Dr. Jenny Molloy (Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology)

Mission area theme: clean growth

The OpenBioMAPS project aims to develop open source tools for distributed biomanufacturing of enzymes and antibodies at low-cost using benchtop microbial and plant systems, with routes to scale-up for industrial plant-based production in chloroplasts.

  • Prof. Haseloff leads the Plant SynBio lab in the Department of Plant Sciences. He was previously co-Director of OpenPlant and co-chair of the Engineering Biology IRC. Jim's work uses Marchantia polymorpha as a simple model system for understanding and engineering plant growth
  • Dr. Molloy leads the Open Bioeconomy Lab in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology. She has been a Shuttleworth Foundation Fellow and a Fellow on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Synthetic Biology. Jenny’s lab develops open technologies for a Sustainable and Equitable Bioeconomy.

You can find out more about the work of these researchers on their websites:

Hasseloff Lab website | Molloy Lab website

Engineering semi-artificial cells for new-to-nature photosynthesis

Dr. Jenny Zhang (Department of Chemistry), Prof. Luning Liu (University of Liverpool)

Mission area theme: clean growth

This project aims to build semi-artificial photosynthetic cells from the bottom up using a new biohybrid approach, whereby synthetically enhanced organelles for light harvesting and CO2 fixation will be combined in protocells. Achieving this will deliver an efficient prototyping platform for engineering cells to perform enhanced or new-to-nature photosynthetic reactions.

  • Dr. Zhang is a BBSRC David Phillips Fellowship at the Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry. She has recently been awarded the RSC Felix Franks Biotechnology Medal and the L'Oreal UNESCO Sustainable Development award for Women in Science. Jenny's work is currently focussed on re-wiring photosynthesis for sustainable photo-energy conversion.

You can find out more about the work of these researchers on their websites:

Zhang Lab website | Liu Lab website

MAST: Modular activator and silencer therapeutics

Prof. Laura Itzhaki (Department of Pharmacology), Dr. Paul Miller (Department of Pharmacology), Prof. Mark Howarth (Department of Pharmacology), Dr Cathy Wilson (Department of Pharmacology), Prof. Florian Hollfelder (Department of Biochemistry), Dr. Pietro Sormanni (Department of Chemistry)

Mission area theme: biomedicine

MAST will develop next generation platforms and libraries of antibody, ligase and protease modules that will be made available to academic researchers and industry to accelerate the discovery and development of biologic therapeutics.

  • Prof. Itzhaki is a Professor of Structural Pharmacology and Head of the Department of Pharmacology. Laura's work focuses on a class of proteins known as tandem-repeat proteins. She is exploring how to exploit the extraordinary design-ability of these proteins for biomedical and biotechnology applications
  • Dr. Miller co-leads the Protein Engineering subtheme in the Department of Pharmacology and his research focuses on the development of antibody modulators of ion channels to help understand and treat neurological disorders.
  • Prof. Howarth is a Professor in the Department of Pharmacology. His research involves creating high stability protein interactions for molecular assembly to control signalling and immune responses.
  • Dr. Wilson leads a research group in the Department of Pharmacology developing novel therapeutic approaches for treating cancers and heart disease and uses a broad repertoire of technologies including genetic engineering, mouse models of cancer and cardiac damage (including switchable gene expression), cell-based assays, modified RNA technology for biotherapeutics delivery, single nuclei genomics, and fluorescent and histological imaging.
  • Prof. Hollfelder is Professor of Chemical and Synthetic Biology in the Department of Biochemistry.  His research is aimed at understanding and engineering enzymes by kinetic analysis and by describing fitness landscapes (via ultrahigh throughput screening and sequencing) as function evolves.
  • Dr. Sormanni is a Royal Society University Research Fellow at the Chemistry Department. His research combines computational method development and experiments to establish computational design as a competitive technology for antibody discovery and optimisation.

You can find out more about the work of these researchers on their websites:

Itzhaki Lab website | Miller Lab website | Howarth Lab website | Wilson Lab website | Hollfelder Lab website | Sormanni Lab website

Engineering gene regulatory networks to design disease-resistant crops

Dr. Nicola Patron (Department of Plant Sciences), Prof. Katherine Denby (University of York), Prof. Richard Morris (John Innes Centre)

Mission area theme: food systems

Plant-infecting fungi cause major crop losses to lettuce, the most valuable leafy vegetable grown in the UK. This mission will use computational modelling to guide the introduction of targeted genetic changes into a gene network regulating plant defences. This will help to produce resistant lettuce plants whilst minimising negative impacts on other important traits such as yield.

Dr. Patron is also a collaborator on a second Mission Award lead by Prof. Anne Osbourn (John Innes Centre): EBioAct: Environmentally sustainable production of bioactive triterpenes. This mission will focus on the production of a group of molecules, some of which are in high demand within healthcare but have unsustainable supply chains, and others that have potential as pollinator-friendly alternatives to pesticides.

  • Dr. Patron is an Associate Professor in the Department of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge and a group leader at the Earlham Institute, Norwich. She was the recipient of a 2015 SynbioLEAP fellowship, and has been recognised as an emerging leader in synthetic biology. Nicola's work focuses on optimising crop performance through the rational engineering of regulatory networks. She aims to provide routes for the sustainable use of natural products used in medicine, industry, and agriculture.

You can find out more about the work of these researchers on their websites:

Patron Lab website | Denby Lab website | Morris Lab website


References & Links

Image Credits

UKRI BBSRC; AmuzujoeKrzysztof Ziarnek, KenraizTomi Baikie; Paul Miller; Dwight Sipler