Engineering biology ‘transforms’ research

According to a report from the McKinsey Global Institute, the international impact from engineering biology will be massive. | Screencap via

The Global Institute for Food Security at the U of S has high hopes for its Engineering Biology Agri-food Innovation Centre

The new Engineering Biology Agri-food Innovation Centre plans to shine its research light on helping to sequester carbon, designing more nutritious and resilient crop varieties, and developing new food ingredients.

The new centre formed within the Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS) at the University of Saskatchewan is the first in Canada. It is designed to work with the GIFS Omics and Precision Agriculture Lab (OPAL) to accelerate new products coming into the marketplace.

Engineering biology combines genomics and molecular biology with high-performance computing, automation, and artificial intelligence.

It has the potential to transform what consumers eat, the medicines they take and the fuels they use.

“Essentially, engineering biology uses biological machinery of cells to make useful tools and products,” said Steve Webb, executive director and chief executive officer at GIFS.

“This represents a transformative way of doing research and product development,” said Webb.

GIFS was recently awarded $3.2 million in infrastructure capital from the Canada Foundation Innovation for robotics, computers and cell culture systems.

It’s part of an overall $9 million budget to build out the three components of its bio-manufacturing platform.

“The funding (will) allow us to be an important node in the Canadian national network and a focal point for ag and food,” Webb said.

According to a report from the McKinsey Global Institute, the international impact from engineering biology will be massive.

“This bio-manufacturing platform that we’re building at GIFS is part of what is projected to be a global market of between $2 and $4 trillion in the next 10 to 20 years,” said Webb.

More than a third of this direct annual impact is estimated to be in the area of agri-food.

“In ag, there’s lots of opportunity — from plant improvement to microbial improvement to even an animal standpoint as well,” he said.

Some examples of how engineering biology may be applied include developing canola varieties that are more resistant to climate change, producing flavourings for the plant-based meat industry and developing non-animal enzyme alternatives for the dairy industry.

“One of the major areas that we’re very interested in is how do we enhance plant microbe interactions to enhance nutrient utilization? The other areas that we’re very interested is using microbes as a source of new chemistry. Those are metabolites that microbes make today,” he said.

“Think about penicillin. It’s a mould that makes an important antibiotic, and we can mine microbes using this technology platform and OPAL to identify new chemistry that could potentially be new modes of action for weed control, insect control, or disease control to help mitigate resistance and have better environmental profiles.”

“Basically the whole principle about this is really taking what nature does now and either redesigning it or making it even better.”

“This platform along with OPAL and the other platforms that we have at GIFS really help us work with partners on the challenges they face so that we can bring those innovations to growers here in Canada and eventually around the world.”

“One thing that excites me is there’s so much untapped potential in what we have in our soil in Western Canada that this can help unleash to help producers produce economically more sustainably, environmentally more sustainably, and do it in a way that has social acceptance and help continue to make agriculture part of the solution to all the big challenges we face because I believe it is part of the solution,” he said.

Using an “ABC” approach of automation, biology and computation, researchers have the ability to advance product development because of increased speed of the design build-test-and-learn cycle.

Traditional approaches that used to take a large researcher staff and years to edit a few plant genes can now edit thousands in a matter of months with far fewer people.

“That’s the kind of scale that this offers and the insights this platform offers by integrating automation with biology with the computational skills including artificial intelligence and machine learning,” he said.

“It changes the game.

“When you think about the COVID-19 vaccines that have been made by Pfizer and Moderna, they were built off of a platform like this… essentially this platform allows that side of the science to go really, really fast.”

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