Engineering microbes to power the new industrial and healthcare revolution

24 Jul 2017 00:15:00.000

A world-leading team of scientists has developed a new and faster way to genetically engineer bacteria called Clostridia that have the potential to revolutionise the energy, food and medical therapeutics industries.

While certain Clostridia have achieved notoriety as the causative agents of diseases such as antibiotic-associated diarrhoea (the superbug Clostridium difficile), or food-borne botulism (Clostridium botulinum), the vast majority are completely harmless and can be used to make the chemicals and fuels society needs from sustainable resources, and even to treat cancer.

Through the use of their proprietary technology based on the genome-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9, scientists at Nottingham’s BBSRC/EPSRC Synthetic Biology Research Centre (SBRC) are able to rapidly alter the genetic make-up of all types of Clostridia tested to date. Alterations include the removal of undesirable traits, such as toxin production or antibiotic resistance, enhancing their anti-tumour potential, or increasing the productivity of chemical and fuel manufacture.
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SBRC Director, Professor Nigel Minton, said: “Our new engineering method is a game changer as Clostridia have application and importance across many fields of science — from biochemical and biofuel production through to medicine and the food industry. We are already using bacteria that can feed on polluting industrial waste gases to make sustainable chemicals and fuels. Now our new CRISPR-Cas9 method allows us to rapidly modify their genomes to tailor them to certain tasks in beneficial processes.

“For example, we are engineering Clostridia as a ‘Trojan horse’ vehicle for delivering drugs to cancer tumours. Our latest paper showed this technique achieved complete tumour regression, and in some cases cure, in an in vivo model and the work is progressing to clinical trials with our partners at the Universities of Maastricht and Auckland.”

The portfolio of work on Clostridia is part of the University’s new Green Chemicals Beacon of Excellence in research — one of six Beacons announced at a launch at the Royal Society in London on 22 June 2017.

Beacon lead, Professor Alex Conradie, said: “The new Beacon integrates Nottingham’s world-leading expertise in metabolic engineering with process engineering and sustainable chemistry, thereby harnessing advances in biotechnology towards more sustainable prosperity. Biotechnological breakthroughs such as the SBRC’s success with CRISPR-Cas9, speed strain development cycles with transformational impacts on agriculture, the energy and food industries and in medicine.”

Professor Conradie added: “In the age of the genome, many products will originate from microbial cell factories. The Green Chemicals Beacon will propel the product and process development cycles forward, offering a biotechnology platform that enables the development journey from process conceptualisation to technology demonstration. Alongside the economic benefit to our collaborators and communities from innovations such as CRISPR-Cas9, these opportunities effectively address the UN Sustainable Development Goals of climate action and sustainable industrialisation.”

Beacons of Excellence

The University of Nottingham is investing £200 million in the future of its research — picking out six beacons of excellence of which ‘Green Chemicals’ is one.

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Notes to editors: 

The University of Nottingham is a research-intensive university with a proud heritage, consistently ranked among the world's top 100. Studying at the University of Nottingham is a life-changing experience and we pride ourselves on unlocking the potential of our 44,000 students - Nottingham was named University of the Year for Graduate Employment in the 2017 Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide, was awarded gold in the TEF 2017 and features in the top 20 of all three major UK rankings. We have a pioneering spirit, expressed in the vision of our founder Sir Jesse Boot, which has seen us lead the way in establishing campuses in China and Malaysia - part of a globally connected network of education, research and industrial engagement. We are ranked eighth for research power in the UK according to REF 2014. We have six beacons of research excellence helping to transform lives and change the world; we are also a major employer and industry partner - locally and globally.

Impact: The Nottingham Campaign, its biggest-ever fundraising campaign, is delivering the University’s vision to change lives, tackle global issues and shape the future. More news…


Story credits

More information is available from Professor Nigel Minton on +44 (0)115 846 6287,

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