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Cambridge researchers present cutting edge research at Synthetic Biology UK 2017

last modified Nov 30, 2017 12:04 PM
Cambridge synthetic biology researchers Prof Jason Chin, Dr Francisco Navarro and Dr Markus Ralser presented at the Synthetic Biology UK 2017 meeting in Manchester this week.

SBUK 2017 was organised by the SYNBIOCHEM synthetic biology research centre in Manchester in collaboration with the Biochemical Society and aimed to highlight the full range of synthetic biology research across the UK. 

Francisco NavarroDr Francisco Navarro (Department of Plant Sciences) was the first of three speakers from the University of Cambridge, introducing his postdoctoral research developing genetic circuits in the green alga Chlamydomonas rheinhardtii using RNA interference, which is funded through the OpenPlant synthetic biology research centre.

Francisco introduced microRNAs (miRNAs): small RNA molecules that have a number of features that make them ideal tools to regulate gene expression. They are small with a flexible design and their target can be predicted. They are involved in the fine-tuning of gene expression but using them in synthetic gene expression circuits requires a better understanding of how they work in particular contexts. Francisco has used fluorescent reporter systems to quantify repression of fluorescent genes by miRNAs and to identify synthetic miRNAs with different activities. This gives rise to a toolkit for engineering gene expression in algae that will be valuable for a range of applications and provides a proof of concept for implementing similar circuits in higher plants. 

Jason ChinProf Jason Chin (MRC-LMB) presented a keynote lecture on the second day covering his work on reprogramming the genetic code. The central dogma of molecular biology is that genomic DNA is copied to RNA and groups of three RNA nucleotides (codons) are decoded into 20 amino acids during translation to a protein. The Chin Lab is creating organisms that synthesise proteins containing unnatural amino acids and therefore proteins that can be built up beyond what is possible with the 20 natural amino acids. 

Interestingly, this approach can be targeted such that the unnatural compounds are only built into proteins within specific cells, giving researchers a way to tag the proteome in cells that may be difficult to separate from surrounding tissue for example in a mouse brain. There are also many other exciting possibilities for fine-grained control of enzyme activity in live cells and exploring post-translational modification.

Markus RalserFinally, the Colworth Medal Award Lecture was presented by Dr Markus Ralser (Department of Biochemistry and Francis Crick Institute) who was awarded the prestigious Colworth Medal 2017 by the Biochemical Society for his work on the early evolution of cellular metabolism, and the dynamic nature of metabolism that allows living cells to adapt to stress situations. His lecture explored some of the constraints that shape the evolution of metabolic networks and what we need to know in order to be able to reconstruct metabolic networks for synthetic biology. He presented his group's attempts to record the metabolic impact of every single gene deletion in budding yeast. As he explained in an earlier interview “The results obtained reveal the power of functional metabolomics to both predict the phenotype of the cell as well as to assign function to genes that are so far of orphan function.”

Next year's conference will take place in Bristol hosted by BrisSynBio and all UK synthetic biologists are advised to look out for the date and consider presenting a talk or poster.

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The Synthetic Biology Strategic Research Initiative provides a hub for anyone interested in Synthetic Biology at the University of Cambridge, as well as commercial partners and external collaborators.