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Details of Grant 

EPSRC Reference: EP/S032215/1
Title: CBET-EPSRC - Grown Engineered Materials (GEMs): synthetic consortia for biomanufacturing tunable composites
Principal Investigator: Ellis, Professor TM
Other Investigators:
Researcher Co-Investigators:
Project Partners:
University of California Riverside
Department: Bioengineering
Organisation: Imperial College London
Scheme: Standard Research
Starts: 01 April 2020 Ends: 31 March 2024 Value (£): 441,638
EPSRC Research Topic Classifications:
Synthetic biology
EPSRC Industrial Sector Classifications:
No relevance to Underpinning Sectors
Related Grants:
Panel History:
Panel DatePanel NameOutcome
06 Aug 2019 Engineering Prioritisation Panel Meeting 6 and 7 August 2019 Announced
Summary on Grant Application Form
The 20th century saw unprecedented advances in the manufacture of materials, with chemical and mechanical engineering approaches enabling plastics, composites, aerogels and more. Now in the 21st century, our newfound abilities in biological engineering open the door to a new paradigm - Grown Engineered Materials (GEMs). Rather than blending together and chemically-modifying existing bulk materials ex situ, GEMs will be produced in vivo in the precise, sustainable way that materials are made by nature - with cells working together at the micro scale to grow different polymers in parallel that interact to form self-patterned composites.

Using a synthetic biology approach, this breakthrough project will develop and demonstrate the first generation of GEMs, producing these by co-cultivating a set of engineered microbes that we have demonstrated can be grown together as a stable consortium. These material-producing microbes will produce GEMs made from nanocellulose fibres and elastin-like polypeptides (ELPs). These are both repetitive biopolymers that on their own have industrially-attractive properties; bacterial-made nanocellulose is exceptionally pure, biocompatible and possess a high mechanical load capability, while yeast-made ELPs are environment-responsive and can be designed to collapse or extend due to changes in levels of salt, pH or temperature. Having these two biomaterials co-synthesised together from growing engineered cells offers a novel route to making exciting new materials that offer properties beyond those of their constituent parts. This approach is inspired by nature, where we witness plants building impressive biomaterials from weaving cellulose into a mechanically-robust composites by incorporation of different polymers such as lignin. For example, the natural co-production of cellulose in composites with other biopolymers enhances the compressive strength of plant cell walls and also enables new characteristics to emerge.

To demonstrate the paradigm of GEMs, our UK and US groups will work together in this project to synthesise and test different ELP designs for how the proteins interact within a growing nanocellulose fibre network. Alongside this we will study, engineer and optimise yeast strains so that these ELP proteins can be efficiently secreted into the growing material by engineered yeast cells that stably co-culture with the cellulose-producing bacteria. By the end of the project we expect to be able to grow high yields of ELP-cellulose composites in just a few days from only our mix of yeasts and bacteria and low-cost growth media. We will assess the material properties of these prototype GEMs and then use synthetic biology tools, such as optogenetics and pattern formation to control how, where and when the composites are made at the micro-scale.

This ambitious interdisciplinary research project will utilise many state-of-the-art approaches to biological engineering that our two groups have international expertise in. From synthetic protein polymer design, strain optimisation and synthetic biology genetic control, right through to systems biology, transcriptomics, machine learning and biomaterial characterisation. We plan to produce a range of ELP-cellulose composite materials that are genetically-tunable, so that changes in the way DNA is written in the microbial cells can predictably lead to changes in the materials and their properties. Our aim is to realise the paradigm of GEMs and provide the blueprint, engineered strains and synthetic biology toolkit for others to utilise this approach in the future.

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Organisation Website: http://www.imperial.ac.uk