Synthetic Biology R&D Programme

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(Photo: NUS Synthetic Biology for Clinical and Technological Innovation)

The national Synthetic Biology R&D Programme will advance Singapore’s synthetic biology research agenda and expertise, as part of efforts to promote a bio-based economy built on deep science capabilities. The programme will integrate and ensure holistic development of synthetic biology capabilities in Singapore, including the translation of research outcomes for clinical and industrial use.

Synthetic biology, or the engineering of microbial systems for the enhanced production of natural products, has the potential to replace current methods of chemical synthesis and extraction from natural products, which are highly laborious, expensive, and often produce low yields. With a global push towards sustainability and a reduction in dependence on oil, a bio-based economy built on research and innovation in the biological sciences could transform manufacturing processes, health and nutrition, and grow new industries with high quality jobs

Deputy Chairman of Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory, Professor Chua Nam Hai, a renowned expert in plant biology and biotechnology, will lead the programme as Programme Director. The programme will be governed by a Steering Committee chaired by Professor Ho Teck Hua, Senior Deputy President and Provost at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

Research Thrusts

NRF will invest an initial $25 million over five years into the Synthetic Biology R&D Programme. Under the programme, NRF will fund research projects under three research thrusts which seek to:

  • Establish a proprietary national strain for commercialisation.‚Äč Three strains identified for development into proprietary strains are Yarrowia (yeast), Kluyveromyces (yeast) and Lactobacillus (bacteria). These strains are categorised as “generally recognised as safe” (GRAS) by the US Food and Drug Administration, and have several possible industrial applications. There is first mover advantage in developing intellectual property in these strains, as well as associated enzymes, and genetic tools used to optimise the host strains for commercial use.  
  • Develop a Synthetic Cannabinoid Biology Programme to deliver life-saving therapeutics derived from the cannabis plant in a sustainable manner. Cannabinoids are chemical compounds found in the cannabis plant. Cannabinoids are promising therapeutics for a range of diseases, and some compounds are already used in clinical trials. Different classes of cannabinoid chemical compounds are also being evaluated by various pharmaceutical industries. Cultivating cannabis plants is illegal in many countries, including Singapore. The Synthetic Cannabinoid Biology Programme aims to discover cannabinoid genes for the sustainable production of medicinal cannabinoids and their derivatives.  
  • Deliver industry relevant projects, in particular the production of rare fatty acids, which have important applications in the pharmaceutical industry. The programme aims to produce rare fatty acids and their derivatives through efficient and economical bio-based methods to meet industrial demand for this biochemical.

Awarded Projects

To date, four research projects have been selected for funding under the programme. The projects are:

  1. Analytical Support to Enhance the Synthetic Biology Research & Development Programme led by Professor Markus Wenk from NUS’ Department of Biochemistry under the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine;

  2. Development of a Microbial Platform for the Production of Rare Fatty Acids led by Associate Professor Matthew Chang from NUS’ Synthetic Biology for Clinical and Technological Innovation (SynCTI) research programme;

  3. Heterologous Production of Cannabinoids in Proprietary Streptomyces Hosts led by Associate Professor Liang Zhaoxun from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore’s School of Biological Sciences; and 

  4. Synthetic Cannabinoid Biology: Repurposing Nature for Tomorrow’s Therapeutics led by Associate Professor Yew Wen Shan from NUS’ SynCTI. 

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