KLAS Workshop

Our project coordinator got the chance to interact with artists and scientists on the topic “ESTHETICS get SYNTHETIC: Knowledge Link Through Art & Science” during the workshop organized by KLAS at the Max Planck Campus in Potsdam-Golm on the 27th – 28th of November 2017.

The workshop was an opportunity to bring together scholars and practitioners to jointly discuss and reflect on contents, approaches and methodologies that draw the link between synthetic biology and artistic research and how those can synergically interact by mutually interrogating and reconsidering their methodologies and modes of operation in an Artist in Residence program like KLAS,  in which Arren Bar-Even’s team participate as hosting laboratory.

GASB SynBio

The 1st  Synthetic Biology conference “Made in Germany”, GASB I, and the founding event of the German Association for Synthetic Biology, GASB took place on the 24th and 25th of November 2017 in Marburg, Germany. Several members of the FutureAgriculture team were there: Marieke Scheffen and Jan Zarzycki from MPI-TM and, among the keynote speakers, our project coordinator Arren Bar-Even.

Finalist place in the EU Innovation Radar Prize

One of our partners, the Max Plack Institute for Molecular Plant Physiology – MPI-MP, has been selected among the 4 finalists for the European Innovation Radar prize 2017 under the category Excellent Science. This category selects the best cutting-edge science underpinning tomorrow's technological advances. Thanks to this initiative, the FutureAgriculture's team got the chance to pitch their plans for going to market with their EU-funded tech to a jury of experts at the ICT Proposers' Day in Budapest (9 November 2017). More info here.

“It’s great you get recognition for your hard work and more importantly for your hard thinking,” says Arren Bar-Even, our project coordinator, of the finalist place and the ceremony in Budapest, "the Innovation Radar champions innovations with strong potential for transformative impacts developed during EU-funded research projects and it is a pleasure to be selected among them."

 

Arren Bar-Even, the project coordinator, during the pitch at the ICT Proposers' day in Budapest (9/11/17).

The multiple voices of the FutureAgriculture team!

We just released a new video – this time instead of the typical interview we decided to capture in few minutes the multiple voices of the FutureAgriculture team.  Each of us condensed the concept of FutureAgriculture in few words and the result is an extraordinary puzzle of points of view. A special thank to the greenhouse facility at the MPI in Marburg that hosted us for the shooting. We hope that you enjoy the video!

M18 Meeting in Marburg

7-8th September 2017. We are just back from a fruitful meeting at the MPI-TM premises in Marburg. We had two days of intense exchange, discussion and sharing of results. This time the newly appointed members of the Advisory Board joined us too: Prof. Nir Keren from the Hebrew University, and Prof. Georg Sprenger from the University of Stuttgard. They both gave a valuable feedback to the project! Looking forward to the next meeting in February!

PEOPLE BEHIND THE PROJECT: Meet Devin

 
 
Devin Trudeau is a Canadian postdoctoral fellow at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, at the Department of Biomolecular Sciences in the group of Prof. Dan Tawfik. He is responsible for the enzyme evolution in FutureAgriculture.

Hi, Devin, what is your role in FutureAgriculture?
Our group's expertise is in directed evolution: using the same process as nature, in the laboratory we can make enzymes with new and interesting properties. In FutureAgriculture we are engineering enzymes to work better than their natural counterpart – for example, doing photorespiration more efficiently. My side of the project is to first identify different enzymes candidates that will be used in the photorespiration bypass pathway and then to directed evolution to make these enzymes work at levels that are acceptable for plants. We've been quite successful, in collaboration with other labs in FutureAgriculture we have managed to create improved metabolic pathways that work in the test tube. The next steps are to make them better and introduce them into live organisms.

"Together we are able to do a project that none of our labs is able to do on its own."

What does it mean for you to be part of an EU-funded project?
The project enables me to collaborate with a very experienced and motivated group of people from all over Europe. I can work with people that are expert in fields different than mine i.e. chemistry, synthetic biology, theoretical biology, cyanobacteria and plants. Together we are able to do a project that none of our labs is able to do on its own.

SIMULATING THE PLANT PHOTOSYNTHESIS

Our ability to test promising pathways in vitro and in vivo is quite limited. The testing of every candidate pathway would become an endless quest – worth of decades and billions of investments.  To select only a few promising pathways we need the support of computational models that predict how each pathway will affect the carbon fixation rate in plants. We have generated a model of plant photosynthesis that takes into account both the central carbon fixation pathway (the Calvin cycle) as well as the photorespiration pathway – either the natural pathway or a synthetic alternative route.

This model enables us to estimate which synthetic pathway will result in the highest enhancement of carbon fixation rate, under different conditions such high/low illumination or high/low CO2-availability due to the opening and closing of the stomata. Only the most promising pathways will undergo a more extensive testing in vitro and in vivo.

The model also feeds both the in vivo and in vitro testing by setting important parameters thresholds and by giving suggestions on how to reach them.  For example, the model can estimate the needed quantity of each pathway component to reach the best performance possible. Therefore it directs the enzyme engineering phase by specifying the minimal activity that an engineered enzyme needs to reach, or it warns us against toxic or reactive compounds that might accumulate during the activity of the pathway within the cells. We then can fine-tune the expression of the pathway components to avoid such deleterious accumulations.

The model is also continuously improved by integrating the data from the in vivo and in vitro testing i.e. the enzymatic activity, the growth rate, etc.  Models are not completely finished yet but they are already well productive in giving us valuable information regarding the expected pathway. They are expected to be fully operative during the 3rd year.

EVOLVING NEW TASKS

After the identification of the pathways, we need to make sure that all the pathways’ components are available. Our pathways involve both existing and novel reaction – reactions that are not known to be catalysed by any enzyme in nature. We engineer existing enzymes to catalyze such novel reactions in order to sustain the activity of the pathway.

First, we need to find existing enzymes in nature that catalyze similar reactions or that can catalyze the novel reactions promiscuously. The concept of promiscuous enzymes is fundamental for this phase: enzymes generally have evolved to catalyze one primary reaction that represents their main task, but promiscuous enzymes can also catalyze, besides the primary reaction, side-reactions at a lower rate.  During the 1st year of the project, we were able to identify the promiscuous enzymes that catalyze all the novel reactions of four of our candidate pathways, although the catalysis rate is quite low as expected.  However, they represent the starting seed for the second stage where we are going to enhance the low-rate reactions of interest by three methods:

  1. Rational design – by applying biochemical knowledge while looking at the enzyme active site and its structure, we can predict amino-acid residues substitutions in order for the enzyme to accept our substrate and support the novel reactions.
  2. Library of changes in protein sequences – By using a large collection of alteration in the protein sequence, we can systematically screen the changes that result in better activity. To easily identify the best change within the library we have designed in vitro assays that couples the target activity to a measurable property i.e. fluoresce.
  3. In vivo selection – by creating E. coli strains whose growth depends on the novel reactions, we can directly select for enzymes that catalyze it efficiently. Thanks to this method, we can directly select for higher enzymatic activity by simply selecting the cells that grow faster.

DESIGN OF CANDIDATE PATHWAYS

The backbone of our project is the identifications of novel pathways that increase agricultural productivity by enhancing carbon fixation rate and efficiency in plants. The pathway design was completed in the first year, during which we identified more than 100 candidate pathways that can potentially bypass the natural photorespiration without releasing CO2.

We have considered all known enzymes and all known enzymatic mechanism to systematically search for all the possible routes that recycle 2-phosphoglycolate, the product of Rubisco oxygenation, back to the Calvin cycles (that supports carbon fixation). Our candidate pathways contained both reactions catalyzed by existing enzymes as well as plausible reactions, i.e.  reactions that potentially can be catalyzed by well-characterized enzymes or that follow a well-known mechanism. We compared the candidate pathways according to various physicochemical properties including thermodynamics, kinetics, resources consumptions, and overlap with endogenous metabolism. Our analysis takes into account also how easy it will be to evolve the novel reactions from existing enzyme and mechanism (i.e. the number of novel enzymes required in the candidate pathway and hints in the scientific literature on existing enzymes that could support such new activity). This approach enabled us to select the most promising pathways in terms of such properties and test them in vitro, reconstructing the pathway from its enzymatic components. We are now implementing the pathways in E. coli, using it as a platform for the pathway selection, before finally moving to cyanobacteria and plants.

SEED 2017

June 20-23, 2017 – Devin Trudeau has presented the poster “A synthetic carbon-neutral photorespiration bypass pathway for improved carbon fixation” at the SEED 2017 conference in Vancouver (Canada). More here.

FutureAgriculture goes to Singapore

15/06/2017 – Prof. Tobias Erb gave a talk about FutureAgriculture at the Department of Biology of the Nanyang Technological University (Singapore). The title is quite catchy “CETCH me if you can: Bringing inorganic carbon into life with synthetic CO2 fixation”.

First Max Planck Con­fer­ence for En­vir­on­mental Mi­cro­bi­o­logy: “It Ma­Ter(s)”

On the 11th and 12th of May, some doc­toral re­search­ers from the Max Planck In­sti­tute for Mar­ine Mi­cro­bi­o­lo­gie and Max Planck In­sti­tute for Ter­restrial Mi­cro­bi­o­lo­gie met in Mar­burg for the first Max Planck Con­fer­ence for En­vir­on­mental Mi­cro­bi­o­logy: “It Ma­Ter(s)”. One of our students, Marieke Scheffen, took the occasion to present FutureAgriculture! More here.

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