A NEW FRONTIER IN SCIENCE

Synthetic biology and the fountain of youth

Crystals of enzymes that produce caloric restriction mimetics. Researchers aim to discover novel caloric restriction mimetics that are more effective than resveratrol in extending life.
Crystals of enzymes that produce caloric restriction mimetics. Researchers aim to discover novel caloric restriction mimetics that are more effective than resveratrol in extending life.PHOTO: NUS

Synthetic biology is the design and building of biological systems to improve existing functions or introduce new purposes. It draws inspiration from nature and uses materials offered by the living environment. Scientists at the Singapore Consortium for Synthetic Biology and NUS Synthetic Biology for Clinical and Technological Innovation programme tell The Straits Times about some of the exciting work they are doing in the field.

You can delay the effects of ageing by restricting your caloric intake by 30 to 40 per cent. But who wants to do that?

The key, then, could be to develop a caloric restriction "mimic" that can directly target metabolic pathways affected by caloric restriction. Taking the substance (such as in the form of a pill) would mimic the substantial anti-ageing effects of calorie restriction, without the need to diet or eat less. A present-day example of a caloric restriction mimetic is resveratrol, a substance found naturally in grapes and red wine. Unfortunately, resveratrol is rapidly metabolised in humans and cannot be taken in amounts that would be effective in extending life span without causing toxicity.

Our research aims to discover novel caloric restriction mimetics (mimetics are substances that copy the effects of naturally occurring compounds in bringing about a desired outcome) that are more effective than resveratrol in extending life. By rewiring the metabolic pathways of certain probiotics, such as Lactobacillus (found in probiotic drinks), we aim to produce caloric restriction mimetics in probiotics so that we can deliver the benefits of caloric restriction - minus the adverse effects associated with dieting.

Although research is currently at the developmental stage, we have uncovered early promising leads.

We hope that our research can contribute to humanity by providing a modern-day "Fountain of Youth".

Associate Professor Yew Wen Shan, Department of Biochemistry, NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 09, 2017, with the headline 'Synthetic biology and the fountain of youth'. Print Edition | Subscribe