Centre for Engineering Biology

Cellular Agritechnology

We can engineer plant cells to create greener and more sustainable platforms for manufacturing chemicals.

Cellular Agritechnology

Edinburgh has unique expertise in plant cell engineering and culture, which is being harnessed to support the bioeconomy by creating more sustainable platforms for high value chemicals.

We are uniquely positioned in terms of expertise and collaborative links to:

1) Develop a toolkit of technologies that will allow plant cells to be exploited as factories for production of low-volume, high-value compounds; and

2) Apply these in developing new sources of existing products and of novel products in culture.

With research excellence in the molecular basis of plant biology, developmental biology, data-driven innovation and systems and synthetic biology, we can accelerate the development of next-generation, plant-cell systems for 'greener' products that consumers and companies demand.


To develop the insights, tools and applications to engineer plant and algae cell cultures to enable predictable, robust and sustainable production of high value chemicals ‘on demand' for multi-million pound markets in the pharmaceutical, food and drink, cosmetic and agricultural sectors.


We have a community of >10 research groups across the University  working in the area of cellular agritechnology exploring all aspects of algal and plant biotechnology. In addition, we have strong links and collaborate with the fast growing Scottish cluster of SMEs exploring this opportunity (e.g. ScotBio, MiAlgae, Algaecraft).

  • We design, build, test and implement molecular toolkits suited for engineering a range of industrially relevant plant/algae cell platforms.
  • We investigate the mechanisms of plant disease resistance making fundamental discoveries about plants and their interactions with microbial pathogens.
  • We explore fundamental questions like how plants control their growth or how they respond to DNA damage. We then assess how we can exploit this information in the context of sustainable food production and agriculture to meet future demands.  
  • Our researchers have expertise in the genetic basis for natural variation in plants and its relationship to fitness as well as the engineering of a synthetic plant organelle that can reduce the amount of fertilizers needed for crop plants. 
  • We explore ways to improve the efficiency of photosynthesis in crop plants using carbon-concentrating mechanisms from algae and cyanobacteria to develop better ways of producing food ingredients and therapeutics.
  • Uncover how plants use small RNAs as long distance signals that cause epigenetic gene silencing but also biomineralisation and understanding how organisms control the precipitation of minerals to produce mineralized tissues with well controlled shapes and properties. 
  • We do pioneering work in understanding the molecular mechanisms of biological timekeeping using yeast, algae and higher plants to understand the ancestral circadian clock.
  • Using  bottom-up engineering approaches, we design synthetic biological circuits and systems using standardised biological parts and devices and use these to build microbial cell factories, mammalian cell factories and novel bioequipment and processes.

Case Studies

New blue from Nature 

ScotBio Innovation award

Consumer awareness and demand for more safe and more natural food additives has increased demand for natural food colourings. This is a fast expanding market and collaboration between ScotBio Ltd and Drs Alistair McCormick, Attila Molnar and Andrew Free, has led to research that resulted in the yield optimisation and increased purity and quality of blue phycocyanin (C-PC) derived from cyanobacteria for sale in the food and pharmaceutical industries.

The team was able to break through critical technical and scaling barriers for the production of their analytical grade C-PC, now known as ScotBio Blue. Through this collaboration, ScotBio was able to adopt new processes and produce a high value, better quality product. Consequently, investment in the company has increased and has led to partnerships with other companies.

The academia/industry team also won the 2019 Scottish Life Sciences Award for Best Innovative Collaboration (see image right) for pioneering work on natural blue colourants. The collaboration has also led to the development of a successful project funded by BBSRC as well as IBioIC funding.


Green Bioactives launched

Green Bioactives logo

Green Bioactives is developing a sustainable production platform for bioactive ingredients using plants and cultured plant cells. The start-up was founded by Prof Gary Loake of the Institute for Molecular Plant Sciences and aims to make fundamental discoveries about the regulation and production of high value molecules from plants.   

Green Bioactives is focusing on plant biomolecules that are the core ingredients in many pharmaceutical, food, cosmetic and agricultural products. Currently the yield of these biomolecules derived from plant material is very low. Furthermore, because of their complexity, synthetic versions are neither economically viable nor result in the production of environmentally toxic waste products. Green Bioactives can deliver high-performance production lines for commercialisation at scale by blending plant cell production and culture with cell line selection and scale-up. The start-up combines synthetic biology, genomics and natural selection, to create proprietary systems for the biomanufacture of plant natural products. 

The research team behind Green Bioactives was funded under Innovate UK’s ICURe (Innovation to Commercialisation of University Research) programme, which provided invaluable market intelligence.  The company went on to secure funding from Innovate UK, together with investment by private investors and follow-on funding in January 2019 when the company was incorporated. Green Bioactives is currently working with two Asian companies and a USA-based multinational to provide natural product ingredients for their respective product ranges. 

You can find out more at https://www.green-bioactives.com or by contacting Prof Gary Loake (g.loake@ed.ac.uk). 



For further information about Cellular Agritechnology and Plant Sciences, please contact:

Dr Theodora Lola-Luz

Head of Research Development

Contact details

See also