Scientists at the Quadram Institute help secure multi-million-pound grants to create groundbreaking new technologies

9th February 2024

Scientists based at the Quadram Institute are part of consortia awarded two major new Engineering Biology hub grants worth £26 million by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

The first of these Engineering Biology Mission Hub grants has been awarded to a group aiming to use biology to recover and recycle rare earth minerals, led by principal investigator Professor Martin Warren of the Quadram Institute and University of Kent.

The consortium includes researchers from:

  •  Quadram Institute
  • University of Kent
  • University of East Anglia
  • The University of Manchester
  • Durham University
  • Natural History Museum
  • University College London
  • University of Surrey
  •  University of York

The £14m Engineering Biology Mission Hub for Environmental Processing and Recovery of Metals (ELEMENTAL) aims to address the growing need for critical minerals and metals in clean energy technologies and promote a circular economy.

Quadram Institute Chief Scientific Officer, Professor Martin Warren, 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 ELEMENTAL project brings together specialists from various UK institutions to establish an open knowledge hub focused on bio-extraction and bio-recovery of metals. The hub aims to enhance ongoing projects related to mineral extraction, urban mining, industrial waste, and nuclear waste by leveraging engineering biology tools and approaches.

  • Technologically critical metals, such as rare earth elements, cobalt, lithium, and indium, pose significant challenges due to their limited availability and the environmental damage caused by their extraction. Recycling these metals is crucial for reducing the demand for primary mining and minimizing environmental impacts
  • The hub will develop a number of targeted approaches to address these challenges. For example, bioleaching uses microorganisms to recover metals from various sources, while bioremediation employs micro-organisms or plants to remove metals from polluted water and land. The project also explores the potential of phytomining, where certain plants naturally accumulate metals and REEs from the soil
  • The integration of engineering biology, including genetic engineering and synthetic biology, offers opportunities to enhance the capabilities of microorganisms and plants involved in metal recovery processes.

The ELEMENTAL hub will also make use of advances developed at the Quadram Institute such as TraDIS-Xpress, a massively parallel transposon mutagenesis method in which all genes within a bacterium can be assayed for roles under a condition of interest in a single experiment, such as metal toxicity, and developing Professor Warren’s work on the safer and more sustainable recovery of heavy metals used in the synthesis of Vitamin B12.

The second award involves the Quadram Institute’s Deputy Chief Scientific Officer Professor Nathalie Juge as a co-investigator in the £12 million GlycoCell Engineering Biology Mission Hub grant led by the University of Nottingham and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

GlycoCell focuses on transforming the biomanufacture of glycans for health by developing platform technology to produce glycans, glycoconjugates, and glycoproteins in microorganisms.

There is a range of applications for vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics for medicine, pandemic preparation and as alternatives to antibiotics. The consortium includes researchers from:

  • University of Nottingham
  • London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
  • Quadram Institute
  • University of Exeter
  • University of Dundee
  • Imperial College London

Professor Nathalie Juge said: “Glycans are sugars which have a huge impact on biotechnological processes. Many important medicines are glyco-modified, and vaccines often target these sugars on the surface of disease-causing pathogens. My group’s work at the Quadram Institute will be focusing on establishing a glycan biomanufacturing platform using Bacillus subtilis for the efficient production of novel vaccines.

“The GlycoCell hub will provide a boost to glycobiology research across the UK and accelerate translation into commercially successful products.”

The GlycoCell hub aims to:

  • Produce high yield glycoconjugate vaccines for neglected streptococcal diseases (including Group A Streptococcus) using bioreactors
  • Pressure test of 100-day rapid response to a simulated pandemic, with an open, public evaluation of this state-of-the-art rapid response to a pandemic threat
  • Establish Bacillus subtilis as an advantageous platform for Gram-positive glycoconjugate biomanufacturing
  • Engineer yeast to mimic glycosylation of fungal pathogens to identify new drug targets and produce immunogenic glycans as vaccines, adjuvants and diagnostics
  • Explore scale-up and translation with industrial partners and broaden relationships with stakeholders

Scientists from the Quadram Institute are also involved in an Engineering Biology mission award with the University of Manchester which is looking at environmental solutions using the TraDIS-Xpress platform and the group includes Prof Ian Charles, Prof Mark Webber and Prof Martin Warren.

Announcing the funding the Science, Research and Innovation Minister, Andrew Griffith, 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. Our latest £100m investment through the UKRI Technology Missions Fund will unlock projects as diverse as developing vaccines, as I saw in Nottingham this week, preventing food waste through disease resistant crops, reducing plastic pollution, and even driving efforts to treat snakebites. With new Hubs and Mission Awards spread across the country, from Edinburgh to Portsmouth, we are supporting ambitious researchers and innovators around the UK in pioneering groundbreaking new solutions which can transform how we live our lives, while growing our economy.”

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