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Synthetic biology research programme involves a wide range of projects

5 June 2013

The Academy of Finland will fund the Synthetic Biology Research Programme (FinSynBio) with a total of EUR 9 million. In all five individual projects and six consortia are funded within the programme. Two of the projects will be carried out in cooperation with the Indian Department of Biotechnology (DBT). The programme subcommittee decided on the funding at its meeting on 4 June 2013.

Synthetic biology is a new, internationally vigorously developing multidisciplinary research field, which integrates, for example, biosciences and physical-chemical and technical sciences with a view to tailoring and building new biological components (e.g. biocatalysts or genetic circuits) and assembling them in a controlled way into biological devices and production systems (cells).

Synthetic biology and its applications also involve a number of societal and ethical questions that should be investigated at an early stage. Synthetic biology provides an excellent example of how both the problem setting and the objectives have changed with the progress of technology.

The objective of the FinSynBio programme is to integrate Finnish-based researchers into an internationally competitive scientific community that would exceed a critical mass and that would actively work to develop synthetic biology and apply the research knowledge from the community. International cooperation and further promotion of emerging international networks through active researcher mobility, for instance, is an integral part of the programme.

Consortia (listed by name of principal investigator):

Tero Aittokallio (University of Helsinki): Synthetic controllability of biological networks through understanding and engineering their control elements. The overall aim of the project is to better understand the fundamental principles of controllability of large complex biological networks and to apply these control principles in order to predict how to best engineer regulatory networks. The concept will be verified in two metabolic use case applications that address two grand challenges: improving sustainable fuel production and multi-targeted anticancer therapeutics.

Eva-Mari Aro (University of Turku): Design and engineering of synthetic hybrid photo-electro organisms. The project will investigate a newly emerging field, microbial electrosynthesis (MES), which relies on the capability of certain microbes for direct electron capture from, for example, solar cells, to be used in their metabolism for the production of carbon-based biofuels. The project will construct novel synthetic hybrid photo-electro-organisms (PEOs) and aim at completely novel and efficient production organisms, which utilise carbon dioxide as a carbon source and use efficient electron capture (MES) supplemented with light as required synthesis of desired products such as fuels and chemicals.

Matti Karp (Tampere University of Technology): Focused proteomic analysis of cell factories. The project will introduce novel methodology for quantification of functional proteome of the cell factory (chassis + added bioparts). The toolset contains an easily genome-engineerable chassis, quantitative monitoring tools of cell factory and computational approaches for system design and analysis. It can be used in a high-throughput manner and universally exploited in cell-based production approaches. The method allows for an efficient design and optimisation of the chassis for any kinds of synthetic biology applications in the future. As a proof-of-concept, the developed toolset will be used to implement a cell factory that efficiently converts lignocellulose to biofuel alkanes.

Markus Linder (Aalto University): Synthetic genetic circuits for programming the structure of material. Biotechnology processes are being developed today with a view to producing components for materials, such as proteins or other functional molecules. Synthetic biology methods are also developed to help find suitable methods for the production of such components. The project will apply these methods but also aim at taking the system one step further. The aim is not only to produce components but also to use designed genetic circuits from synthetic biology with a view to making the production time-dependent to achieve higher order structures. 

Arto Urtti (University of Helsinki): Bioactive protein synthesis in vitro with cell-free platform. The project will investigate and develop a cell-free platform for protein expression and testing. The platform will be used to develop new approaches for targeting of pharmaceutical proteins and exploration of biosynthetic routes. The project involves collaboration with India.

Pia Vuorela (Åbo Akademi University): Fabricating bacterial biofilms via artificial nano(bio)components. The project is researching bacterial biofilms, which are substrate-attached 3D bacterial communities. The project is the first synthetic biology endeavour aiming at fabricating artificial biofilms from nano(bio)components to advance biofilm functionality and open up new application possibilities, while addressing ethical, societal and communicative issues associated with synthetic biology.

Individual projects:

Matti Häyry (University of Helsinki): Synthetic biology and ethics. The project will study ethical questions of synthetic biology. The work will begin by informal interviews with scientists in the field in Finland and continue with the analysis and assessment of international academic literature on the topic. Research in the field holds future promises for drugs for malaria, cures for cancer and biofuels that will solve global energy problems. In cooperation with other scientists, the project will formulate rules that make the ethical progress of synthetic biology possible.

Tarja Knuuttila (University of Helsinki): Biological knowledge through modelling and engineering: Epistemological and social aspects of synthetic biology. The project will investigate various epistemological and social aspects of the research practice of synthetic biology through theoretical and empirical studies in collaboration with synthetic biology laboratories in Finland and abroad. A particular focus will be on the interdisciplinary and basic science dimensions of synthetic biology. The project will also study the relationship between modelling and experimentation, and the public understanding of synthetic biology. It will develop theoretical and practical resources with a view to better understanding the various characteristics of synthetic biology. It will also foster public understanding of synthetic biology by providing a realistic understanding of its potential benefits and risks. One result of the project will be a book on synthetic biology intended for a broader Finnish audience. The project will also promote collaboration between researchers from natural sciences, social sciences and the humanities.

Minna Poranen (University of Helsinki): Prokaryotic virus as a tool for synthetic biology. The aim of Poranen’s project is to use viral parts with a view to developing synthetic bacterial cells. The new functions introduced into bacteria will allow for efficient production of, for instance, antiviral compounds that are based on RNA. Another aim is to get new insights into virus assembly processes. The project is a cross-disciplinary effort and combines biochemical, computational and molecular virology approaches.

Lloyd Ruddock (University of Oulu): Protein-based drugs, such as insulin, are used by millions of people every day. While they are very effective, they are also difficult and costly to produce. One issue relates to modifications that occur in proteins after they are made, including structure stabilising bridges, called disulphide bonds and the addition of specific sugars, known as N-glycosylation. Protein production in the bacteria E. coli is by far the quickest and cheapest method of protein production, but it is limited by the lack of routes to make disulphide bonds or N-glycosylation. This project is to make second generation E. coli strains that are able to efficiently make disulphide bonds and N-glycosylation in proteins and then secrete the correctly folded and active protein out of the cell. These would dramatically reduce the cost of production of protein based drugs, while at the same time increasing the quality by avoiding other modifications that can occur in currently used production systems.

Laura Ruohonen (VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland): Control of in vivo polymerisation by synthetic biology approaches. The advancement of molecular biology tools, metabolic engineering and the recent rise of synthetic biology have demonstrated the feasibility of biotechnology to find alternative way for efficient and safe production of fuels, chemicals and materials. The focus of the project is to combine synthetic biology and bioprocess engineering approaches for establishing and improving in vivo production pathways for high molecular weight bio-based polymers in bacteria and yeast. The improvements of the production pathways will be achieved by parallel approaches: the use of synthetic biology tools, genome-scale metabolic models and bioprocess development. The research involves collaboration with India.

More information:

  • Programme Manager Jukka Reivinen, tel.+358 29 533 5099, firstname.lastname(at)aka.fi
  • Programme Manager Tiina Jokela, tel. +358 29 533 5046, firstname.lastname(at)aka.fi
  • Chair of programme subcommittee Kalervo Hiltunen, tel. +358 29 448 1150, firstname.lastname(at)aka.fi

Academy of Finland Communications
Communications Specialist Leena Vähäkylä
tel. +358 29 5335 139
firstname.lastname(at)aka.fi

 

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