Westlake News ACADEMICS

Westlake Center of Synthetic Biology and Integrated Bioengineering Officially Launched

05, 2023

Email: zhangchi@westlake.edu.cn
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From slash-and-burn farming to the roar of machines and terraforming of our planet, human activity has continued to impact global climate change, with some experts suggesting the carbon dioxide released by the industrial revolution will cause global warming for the next 200 years. But another "revolution" in the scientific community is working to safeguard our future through the interdisciplinary field of synthetic biology.

Countries worldwide have high hopes that synthetic biology will pave a new way forward to achieve green, low-carbon, sustainable development and solve climate and environmental problems.

Recently, the Westlake Center of Synthetic Biology and Integrated Bioengineering was officially launched. Prof. Anping Zeng, a member of the German National Academy of Science and Engineering and chair professor of synthetic biology and bioengineering, serves as the founding director of the center.

As a university-level research center, the Center for Synthetic Biology and Integrated Bioengineering will focus on next-generation biomedicine, biomaterials, and large-scale green biomanufacturing. The core technologies are based on carbon dioxide and solar energy, combining life science, bioengineering, materials science, green chemistry, artificial intelligence, and other disciplines.

This cutting-edge discipline, which seems unrelated to the climate, is actually very close to the lives of ordinary people.

Prof. Anping Zeng and WE-SynBio

What Is Synthetic Biology?

In a popular science lecture, Zeng introduced the great potential of synthetic biology with a set of numeric comparisons:

"Theoretically, more than 60% of the world's important chemicals, fuels, natural products, and raw materials can be obtained through biosynthesis. But in fact, currently less than 6% of them are being produced through biosynthetic manufacturing."

The space between 6% and 60% represents a brand-new market which could be developed through breakthroughs in frontier disciplines. Some investment firms estimate its potential market value at or above $30 trillion, which equals more than one-third of the global manufacturing output.

As such, synthetic biology is becoming a hot area for international strategic competition. On Sept. 12, 2022, the United States signed the "National Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Initiative". The European Union listed it as a "key technology for the future", and China also identified it as a key strategic development direction. Synthetic biology remains on par with brain science, quantum information, metamaterials, and other fields with major application prospects.

We can understand synthetic biology as the design and assembly of life genes. When scientists use engineering concepts and technologies to study life sciences, life in their eyes is composed of standardized parts. In the past, scientists only studied how these parts work, but now they can disassemble, reassemble, mass-produce, and even design biological components from scratch.

Synthetic biology can create products out of nothing according to people's actual needs.

For example, when the COVID-19 pandemic began sweeping the world, synthetic biology became one of the main forces in the development of drugs and vaccines. As synthesizing artificial starch and synthetic meat became possible in the laboratory, these provided solutions for the global food crisis. Low-carbon biosynthesis using carbon dioxide and biomass as raw materials may be able to help achieve global carbon neutrality in the long run. It can also play a major role in responding to energy and climate challenges.

Interdisciplinary Innovation

Westlake University's interdisciplinary scientific community provides an excellent setting for the highly integrated and interdisciplinary field of synthetic biology.

The School of Engineering, School of Life Sciences, and School of Science teamed up to establish the Westlake University Center of Synthetic Biology and Integrated Bioengineering. Zeng, who leads the center, focuses his research on industrial biotechnology, animal cell culture technology, protein engineering, systemic metabolism, and synthetic biology. Currently, more than 10 principal investigators have joined the center to carry out a number of interdisciplinary projects, including national key R&D programs led by Westlake University such as "Synthetic Biology", "Artificial Photosynthesis Carbon Sequestration", and "Design and Assembly of Efficient Hydrogen-Electric Artificial Biological Devices".

"We hope that through systematic quantification and artificial design optimization, we can develop novel artificial cells and next-generation biomanufacturing technologies," said Zeng.

Two years ago, Zeng’s team discovered for the first time that an enzyme protein has a reversible phase transition phenomenon corresponding to the environment. It can form a rare hydrogel with a single component and biocatalytic activity. This accidental scientific discovery provided an opportunity for them to do further research which will aid in the development and efficient manufacture of antibody drugs for diseases.

At the same time, a new field of research—synthetic biology of catalyzed smart soft matter—has been created.

"By combining synthetic carbon 1-carbon x with synthetic catalytic soft matter we can explore its novel applications in smart biomaterials, biocatalytic synthesis, biomedicine, and future food development. We can also explore 3D biostructure printing, smart bioreactors, a new generation of mRNA drugs, new tools for gene therapy, artificial meat, and beauty and health care products,” Zeng said.

A lab member operating the high-throughput automated biosynthesis reactor

Looking to the Future

Last summer, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a disheartening report: Even with deep cutbacks in greenhouse gas emissions, global warming is likely to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius in the next 20 years. Seven years ago, the Paris Agreement also set 1.5 degrees Celsius as the threshold we should never cross. Once we do, our world may experience more frequent extreme weather events such as droughts, flooding, extreme heat, and storms.

Biologists have long thought about how to capture and reuse greenhouse gases. Research at the center may have different applications, but all projects contribute to green manufacturing and carbon neutrality and are of great significance to the sustainable development of human society.

One of the most direct research goals is atmospheric biosynthesis. This research uses sunlight (electricity) and the atmosphere (carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and water) to synthesize basic raw materials, green chemicals, and food.

A lab member operating on protein separation and purification

In his book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, Bill Gates describes a similar technology to capture carbon dioxide wherever and whenever it is produced. However, developing and utilizing the extremely low concentration of carbon dioxide in the air for related biomanufacturing technologies still remains a challenge for scientists and engineers.

The center is also looking into applications for the agricultural industry. Understanding how to recycle waste gas and wastewater containing carbon and ammonia to turn them into amino acids and feed using biosynthesis technology can help achieve carbon neutrality in agricultural enterprises.

As one example, Westlake University Prof. Kechun Zhang’s Lab successfully developed a new feed protein variety that can be mass-produced. The new product has comparative advantages in terms of output and yield, and it can help agricultural enterprises save food and reduce consumption to boost national food security.

Zeng’s faculty page at Westlake includes a quote from him: “I hope that Westlake University will be a fertile soil not only for scientific discovery, but also for technology innovation and talents.” The establishment of the Center of Synthetic Biology and Integrated Bioengineering will surely contribute to the realization of that vision for the future.