NUS sets sights on synthetic biology

A new $25 million research programme at the National University of Singapore (NUS) has the potential to one day overcome the scourge that strikes the Republic regularly - dengue.

The study of synthetic biology has seen researchers abroad re-engineer the genome of the Aedes mosquito so that its offspring die before reaching adulthood.

But the NUS researchers have other ideas in mind, Associate Professor Yew Wen Shan of the Department of Biochemistry at the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine told The Straits Times.

The more immediate focus of the NUS Synthetic Biology for Clinical and Technological Innovation - or SynCTI - is to study how to create antibiotics that can resist superbugs, and synthetic yeast whose characteristics can be altered by choice, among other things.

Synthetic biology research was made famous by bioscientist Craig Venter in 2003 when he successfully mapped the entire human genome, an achievement that could lead to medicine customised to an individual's unique genetic make-up.

Essentially, such research aims to construct biological components and systems that do not exist in the natural world, or modify existing biological systems. This could mean developing microbes that produce existing drugs, or re-engineering mosquitoes that will reduce the population of these dengue-causing insects.

The NUS SynCTI programme brings together the disciplines of engineering, medicine and science and Prof Yew, one of its principal investigators, said it is also "in the business of training the next generation of synthetic biologists".

NUS undergraduates right up to PhD students can do modules in the programme, which also offers attachments to polytechnic students.

SynCTI also partners the University of California, Berkeley, and Imperial College London, both of which will set up laboratories in the NUS Centre for Life Sciences, where the programme houses its seven local laboratories run by NUS faculty.

With most of its funds coming from the NUS, topped up by contributions from the National Research Foundation, Education Ministry and other government agencies and industry partners, SynCTI aims to take on "societal grand challenges", said Prof Yew. One example would be to target obesity, which is often due to abnormal micro-organism behaviour in the body. It is looking at a more creative solution than just a new pill.

"We could go as far as to restore normalcy by engineering a smart bug to reprogram the microbes residing in the body," he said.

Samantha Boh

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 02, 2015, with the headline 'NUS sets sights on synthetic biology'. Print Edition | Subscribe