RSB Director's Seminar: The CSIRO Synthetic Biology Future Science Platform / Synthetic biology flux control tools for metabolic engineering: isoprenoids as a model system

In the first part of this presentation, I will introduce the CSIRO Synthetic Biology Future Science Platform and its research foci in Chemicals & Fibres, Environment & Biocontrol, Health & Medicine, and social sciences, as well as our collaborative activities across Australia. In the second part, I will introduce my University of Queensland team’s research.

Vickers Group @ AIBN, UQ: We use advanced systems and synthetic biology approaches to (a) understand metabolic regulation of the isoprenoid group of natural products, and (b) engineer production of industrially-useful biochemicals. The overall aim of the program is to develop a sufficiently complete understanding of biology such that predictable, reproducible engineering can be achieved. Isoprenoids (terpenes/terpenoids) represent an ideal model system to investigate this challenge. Isoprenoids are an extremely large and diverse group of natural compounds with myriad biological functions, including roles in photosynthesis, respiration, signalling, membrane biosynthesis, and as pigments, hormones, virulence factors, vitamins, etc. They also have many industrial uses, ranging from specialized applications (e.g. anti-cancer and anti-malarial pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals) through to bulk chemicals (e.g., food colours, fragrances, rubbers, agricultural chemicals, and fuel replacements). However, extracting these compounds from natural sources or chemically synthesizing them is often unfeasible, making them ideal targets for metabolic engineering. Through our studies, we have developed a number of new tools and techniques that help us understand metabolic regulation of pathway flux and achieve controlled cellular behaviour. These include tools for inserting large amounts of DNA onto the E. coli chromosome at well-defined loci, yeast expression vectors to drive expression of multiple genes simultaneously, modules to control cell density-dependent gene expression, plant transformation vectors and reporter systems, novel approaches to understand pathway flux, and software for managing complex molecular engineering projects. This presentation will detail the available synthetic biology tools with examples of their application in isoprenoid production.

Associate Professor Vickers holds dual roles as Director of the Snthetic Biology Future Platform CSIRO Synthetic Biology Future Science Platform at CSIRO (Australia’s Federal research agency) and Group Leader Group Leader in the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN), The University of Queensland (UQ). She completed her PhD in cereal crop biotechnology at CSIRO Plant Industry and UQ in 2004. She held a post-doctoral position at Essex University in the UK 2004-2007, where she worked on abiotic stress and the metabolic regulation and physiological function of volatile isoprenoids in plants. She returned to UQ in 2007, joining the AIBN to expand her research program into microbial metabolic engineering. She now leads a group focussed on converting agricultural biomass to industrially-useful biochemicals using advanced synthetic and systems biology approaches. Target compounds sit in the isoprenoid group of natural products, and include jet fuel, plant hormones for agricultural applications, food additives (flavours, colours, etc.), fragrances, and pharmaceuticals. Since January 2017 Associate Professor Vickers has held a joint appointment with the Commonwealth Science and Industry Research Organisation (CSIRO) to lead the CSIRO Synthetic Biology Future Science Platform (SynBioFSP), a $60 M research and development program aimed at expanding Australia’s capability in synthetic biology. She is also on the Executive of Synthetic Biology AustralasiaSynthetic Biology Australia.