Synthetic and systems biology can help create more sustainable solutions to our planet's challenges.
Advances in research and technology are increasing the speed, scale and precision with which we can robustly and predictably modify biological systems for new and useful applications.
Using engineering principles to redesign living systems, we will gain unprecedented insights in how systems work and make transformative improvements across many industries. We work collaboratively across disciplines – from molecular biology through to social sciences – to engineer biology to address global challenges and create a more sustainable future for our planet.
- We can re-programme cells such as yeast and bacteria into ‘biofactories’ to produce ‘greener’ chemicals that form the building blocks of many products used today.
- Our researchers are developing novel biomaterials – built from nature’s building blocks – that have unique functions not seen in nature. Such materials can be used to make anti-glint coatings for windscreens or polymers that stop bacteria attaching to medical devices.
- We research the use of novel feedstocks, such as re-use of industrial by-products (e.g. distillery co-products) and recycling of rare metals (e.g. cobalt from lithium ion batteries), to reduce waste and limit our demand from the planet's limited resources.
- We are harnessing the unique properties of novel microbes (e.g. extremophiles) and researching the bioremediation of contaminated sites using microbes.
Biologically upcycling metals
Metals have a finite supply, thus metal scarcity and supply security have become worldwide issues. We have to ensure that we do not drain important resources by prioritising the desires of the present over the needs of the future.
Certain bacteria have the ability to reduce metal cations and form precipitates of zero-valence (i.e. a pure metal) as part of their survival mechanism to defend against toxic levels of metal cations. Using synthetic biology tools and techniques, alongside iterative design, build and test cycles the lab of Prof Louise Horsfall aims to enhance, manipulate and standardise the biomanufacture of these nanosize precipitates as high value products. Ultimately they hope to produce engineered microbes with the ability to upcycle critical metal ions from waste streams into high value nanoparticles with a range of exciting applications.
Capturing the value of plastic the microbial way
Plastic waste pollution is a global environmental disaster, with ~8 million tonnes of these recalcitrant materials ending up in the oceans each year. This damages marine ecosystems and may impact human health as tiny plastic particles make their way into water systems.
Of the ~14% of plastic that is recycled, ~95% of the value is lost from the new material through to the post-consumer waste, equating to a loss of $110 billion to the economy every year.
Dr Joanna Sadler, a BBSRC Discovery Fellow working in the lab of Dr Stephen Wallace, is developing novel microbial cell factories to transform plastic into value-added, industrially important small molecules used to make fragrances, flavours and other important chemicals.
Joanna's molecular up-cycling strategy not only removes harmful plastic waste from circulation but also uses it as a starting material to make much needed, and commercially valuable, molecules.
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