UKRI pumps in £100m to transform engineering biology projects

Article by Amanda Jasi

RESEARCHERS working to combat plastic pollution, improve metals circularity, and develop novel food production are among those set to benefit from a £117m (US$149m) cash injection from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), aimed at unlocking the potential of engineering biology.

Led by UK universities, six mission hubs are each receiving up to £12m from the Technology Missions Fund and UKRI core budgets to support five years of work involving collaboration between multiple academic and industrial partners.

Twenty-two mission awards projects will complement the hubs, receiving a share of £30m across two years. The mission awards aim to expand engineering biology disciplines and communities, building on existing UK strengths and emerging opportunities.

Playing a key role in the UK government’s national vision for the industry, the hubs and projects are expected to transform technologies in areas such as plastics, vaccines, food production, and textiles.

The UK government defines engineering biology as the design, scaling, and commercialisation of biology-derived products and services that can transform sectors or produce existing products more sustainably. Andrew Griffith, minister for science, research, and innovation, said: “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.”

Mission award recipients include a project led by the University of Manchester, which is receiving £1.9m for work that aims to develop a versatile and scalable platform for manufacturing precisely engineered proteins using genetic code expansion technology.

Amanda Collis, UKRI technology mission director for engineering biology and interim deputy executive chair of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), said: “This investment builds upon the UK’s significant strengths in engineering biology. The hubs and mission awards will support collaboration between disciplines, with business, and across the regions and nations of the UK, as well as enable partnership with other countries.”

Kedar Pandya, senior responsible owner of UKRI’s Technology Missions Fund, added that the hubs will enhance the UK’s strong pedigree in engineering biology, and “bring societal and economic benefits to the country”.

Around £100m of the backing is provided by the UKRI Technology Missions Fund and UKRI and BBSRC core budgets. The hubs and mission award projects are also receiving quality related research funding from UKRI’s higher education funder Research England. The total funding from Research England totals around £17m.

Recovering metals and materials

The Engineering Biology Mission Hub for Environmental Processing and Recovery of Metals (ELEMENTAL) is being awarded £14m by UKRI. Led by the University of Kent, it aims to use biology to recover and recycle rare earth elements (REEs).

REEs such as cobalt, lithium, and indium are critical for clean energy technologies but have limited availability, while their extraction is environmentally damaging.

Project leader Martin Warren will work with partners to establish an open knowledge hub to enhance ongoing projects related to mineral extraction, urban mining, industrial waste, and nuclear waste, relying on engineering biology tools and approaches. Examples include using microorganisms to extract metals (bioleaching) or to break down contaminants in polluted water and land (bioremediation). The team will also explore phytomining, using plants to extract metals and REEs from soil.  

Warren, professor of biochemistry at the University of Kent, said: “Our ELEMENTAL engineering biology mission hub focuses on potentially transformative technologies that can help us steward our precious resources and help build a circular economy. We will take targeted approaches such as bioleaching, bioremediation, and biorecovery to address metal waste, rare earth elements (REE) and radionuclide waste, and metal scarcity.”

The hub also includes the University of East Anglia, the University of Manchester, Durham University, University College London (UCL), the University of Surrey, the University of York, the Natural History Museum, and the Quadram Institute.

Tiny superheroes to tackle pollution and waste

Led by Cranfield University, the Environmental Biotechnology Innovation Centre (EBIC) will focus on advancing the properties and functions of microorganisms to create more effective methods for monitoring the environment and removing pollutants. UKRI is supporting the endeavour to the tune of £13.2m.

Using techniques from synthetic biology, biotechnology, and environmental engineering, researchers will focus on developing microorganisms to target and mitigate the negative impacts of substances such as plastic waste, hydrocarbons, metals, and oil. As well as cleaning up these hazardous and toxic pollutants from the environment, the team also aims to use the microorganisms to help regenerate and recycle waste.

“They may be tiny, but microorganisms have ‘superhero’ properties which give them enormous potential to have a positive impact on our world,” said Frederic Coulon, professor of environmental chemistry and microbiology at Cranfield and EBIC project lead.

“Using advanced technologies, the research team will create entirely new organisms or enhance the functions of existing ones. By doing this, we can design microorganisms that are better suited for environmental tasks like converting waste into valuable resources.”

As well as Cranfield, EBIC will involve Brunel University London and the universities of Essex, Bangor, Edinburgh, Southampton, East Anglia, Glasgow, Heriot-Watt, and Newcastle.

Preventing plastic pollution

The University of Portsmouth is being awarded £12.9m by UKRI, to support work focused on tackling plastic pollution. The university’s Centre for Enzyme Innovation (CEI) has been delivering enzyme-enabled technologies for plastics recycling since it launched in 2019.

Leading the Preventing Plastic Pollution with Engineering Biology (P3EB) Mission Hub, CEI will work with partners to use enzymes and microbes to break down and transform end-of-life plastics into valuable products.

Project partner Imperial College London said the team aims to develop novel and environmentally friendly methods to repurpose plastics using recovered monomers to produce high-quality goods while reducing use of virgin oils. It adds that work will prioritise the most harmful and commonly produced plastics: polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polyurethane, polycarbonate, and nylon.

Andy Pickford, director of the CEI and lead principal investigator of the P3EB Mission Hub, said: “Our approach is enabled by our wide-ranging expertise and our influential project partners, and steered by engagement with the public and with policymakers. Our mission is aligned with the needs of industry, so as to bring about comprehensive and enduring change, and support the transition towards a circular plastics economy in the UK, creating job opportunities and wealth for the country.”

P3EB Mission Hub also includes Bangor University, the University of Cambridge, the University of Edinburgh, the University of Manchester, and UCL.

The remaining hubs include the Imperial College London-led Microbial Food Hub, which is receiving almost £14.2m. The funding will support development of fermentation-based foods and ingredients. Receiving £12.3m, the GlycoCell Engineering Biology Mission Hub, led by the University of Nottingham, will develop vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics. Meanwhile, funded with £14.2m, the University of Edinburgh-led Engineered Genetic Control Systems for Advanced Therapeutics Hub will focus on novel gene therapies to treat and cure disease.  

Overall, between 2023 and 2025, UKRI will invest £320m from the Technology Missions Fund to enable new and existing capabilities and capacity in engineering biology, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and to support future telecommunications.

Engineering biology is one of five critical technologies the UK aims to boost as part of its science and technology framework.

Article by Amanda Jasi

Staff reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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