The Institute of Food Research welcomes UK funding to build world-first synthetic yeast

11th July 2013

Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts has announced nearly £1M funding for the UK arm of an international consortium attempting to build a synthetic version of the yeast genome by 2017.

Saccharomyces cerevisiae - bakers' yeast

Saccharomyces cerevisiae – baker’s yeast

Dr Ian Roberts, curator of the BBSRC-supported National Collection of Yeast Cultures at the Institute of Food Research is a member of the Strategic Management Board for the UK team of scientists who are building one of the chromosomes.

“This project builds on established UK strengths in yeast genomics, systems biology and understanding of yeast biological diversity at the molecular level,” said Dr Roberts. “UK biological collections and yeast genetic resources are already amongst the best in the world. The new resource of synthetic yeast strains will deliver important additional benefits to industrial biotechnology and biorefining.”

David Willetts said: “This research is truly groundbreaking and pushes the boundaries of synthetic biology. Thanks to this investment, UK scientists will be at the centre of an international effort using yeast – which gives us everything from beer to biofuels – to provide new research techniques and unparalleled insights into genetics. This will impact important industrial sectors like life sciences and agriculture.”

When completed it will be the first time scientists have built the whole genome of a eukaryotic organism – those organisms, like animals and plants, which store DNA within a nucleus. Scientists can then design different strains of synthetic yeast that contain genes to make commercially valuable products such as chemicals, vaccines or biofuels.

Professor Keith Waldron from the Institute of Food Research works closely with the National Collection of Yeast Cultures in finding novel ways of turning waste streams from the food chain into valuable chemicals, including biofuels. Yeast’s ability to ferment sugars into ethanol and a range of other chemicals makes it central to these processes. Different yeast strains have different properties, making some more suitable for biorefining than others, and they produce a varied spectrum of products. Prof Waldron’s research group is collaborating with NCYC in screening the thousands of yeast strains held in the collection.

“This initiative provides a focus for yeast research and its application to solving major challenges of food security and reducing reliance on high carbon fuels,” said Professor Waldron.

“The synthetic yeast has potential applications in rapid evolution and high throughput strain selection. It opens up new possibilities to design strains, based on our growing knowledge of yeast genetics. Using new yeasts to reduce food waste, generate valuable chemicals and produce sustainable fuels helps overall food security and support the agri-food chain.”

Collaborators from the UK, USA, China and India are meeting at Imperial College London to discuss their plans and progress so far, and hear from related projects underway using bacteria. For the Sc 2.0 project, teams at universities around the world are responsible for building each of the 16 individual yeast chromosomes that together comprise the complete genome.

Funding for the UK team, led by Dr Tom Ellis and Prof Paul Freemont at the Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation (CSynBI) at Imperial College London, with help from Prof Alistair Elfick at the University of Edinburgh and Prof Steve Oliver at Cambridge University, was recently approved from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) with co-funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

The £970,000 funding for the Sc 2.0 UK Genome Engineering Resource (SUGER), awarded through the Bioinformatics and Biological Resources Fund, will allow the UK team to build and test Synthetic Chromosome XI, which is 0.7 million DNA base pairs long.

The synthetic yeast genome will be tailored to aid research and is expected to give new and detailed insights into many aspects of genetics including genome organisation, structure and evolution, as well as advance the exciting new field of synthetic biology.

The project originated from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, USA, and is being co-ordinated by Professor Jef Boeke of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Prof Boeke said: “Sc 2.0, once completed, will provide unparalleled opportunities for asking profound questions about biology in new and interesting ways, such as: How much genome scrambling generates a new species? How many genes can we delete from the genome and still have a healthy yeast? And how can an organism adapt its gene networks to cope with the loss of an important gene?

“Moreover, genome scrambling may find many uses in biotechnology, for example in the development of yeast that can tolerate higher ethanol levels.”

The S. cerevisiae genome was picked for the project because its 6,000 genes make it relatively small and scientists are already very familiar with it; yeast was the first eukaryotic organism to have its genome completely sequenced.

To complete the work a new suite of bioinformatics software and detailed genome engineering methods are being developed and these, alongside the highly-evolvable synthetic yeast strains themselves, will be made an open-access resource to advance research in numerous fields.

Alongside BBSRC and EPSRC, major funders for the Sc 2.0 consortium members in their respective countries include the USA’s National Science Foundation (NSF), the US Department of Energy, China’s Ministry of Science and Technology (MoST) and the Tsinghua University Initiative Scientific Research Program.