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chemistry and molecular biology

Newly established centre for synthetic biology is going to create microbial cell factories

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In summer 2015, Mart Loog, Professor of Molecular Systems Biology at the University of Tartu, received a prestigious grant from the European Research Area (ERA). The ERA Chair grant was given to establish a centre for synthetic biology at the University of Tartu. The funding, coming from the EU’s research and innovation funding program Horizon 2020, will be used to attract a team of excellent academics with a background in synthetic biology.

In January 2016, Dr Petri-Jaan Lahtvee was appointed as ERA Chair in Synthetic Biology. Dr Lahtvee received his PhD in 2012 from Tallinn University of Technology and continued as a postdoctoral researcher at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden. In the group of synthetic and systems biology, he applied multi-layer omics analysis and computational modelling to understand stress regulation mechanisms in yeast with the aim to create more robust cell factories.

As ERA Chair in Synthetic Biology, Dr Lahtvee is planning to address the main challenges in industrial biotechnology. By applying tools from synthetic biology and metabolic engineering, the aim is to create de novo designed cell factory platform strains for the sustainable production of biochemicals.

“Synthetic Biology is a relatively new research field which aims to create cells and organisms with novel functionalities. Our centre will be involved in creating microbial cell factories for the production of biochemicals. Our direct scientific aim is to focus on developing synthetic circuits which are not native for the host organism, but could be used to direct cellular metabolism in a controlled way,” explains Lahtvee, adding that the aim is to develop and apply those circuits to produce chemicals like biofuels, food ingredients and pharmaceuticals.

In addition to cell design and construction, the group’s aim is to understand more fundamental questions in molecular biology related to the translational efficiency of enzymes and understanding the energy regulation in eukaryotic cells.

The initiative of the University of Tartu Institute of Technology to establish the Centre for Synthetic Biology combines several research groups from the university. The main goal of those research groups is to apply the existing experience in biotechnology to design novel synthetic cells and organisms.

The narrower focus of the centre will be directed towards creating cell factories for the production of biochemicals and pharmaceuticals. The centre will create a platform to enhance the field of bio-industry in Estonia and, further, to improve Estonian chemical industry while transforming the oil shale-based chemical production towards sustainable bio-chemicals.

This first Horizon 2020 call on ERA Chairs was launched on 11 December 2013 with a budget of €33.6 million, following a pilot call under the 7th research framework program. Professor Mart Loog received a €2.6 million ERA Chair grant to increase the research capacity in the field of synthetic biology.

Additional information: Mart Loog, Professor of Molecular Systems Biology, project coordinator, tel. 517 5698, e-mail: mart.loog@ut.ee

Original article published by University of Tartu.

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