£13m for UK first ‘superhero’ micro-organism flagship

15 Feb, 2024
Tony Quested
Researchers from 10 universities are to advance functions of micro-organisms – said to have ‘superhero’ qualities that will help tackle pollutants – via a new research centre being established at Cranfield University.
Frederic Coulon, Professor of Environmental Chemistry and Microbiology at Cranfield University and EBIC Project Lead. Image courtesy of Cranfield University.

The first of its kind in the UK, the flagship is being formed to enhance and develop the natural abilities of micro-organisms in cleaning up our planet.

Tackling environmental pollutants and waste using microbes, the new centre is being established with £13 million of funding from UK Research and Innovation’s Technology Missions Fund and support from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council .

The Environmental Biotechnology Innovation Centre (EBIC), led by Cranfield University, brings together scientists from 10 leading UK institutions in a mission to advance the properties and functions of micro-organisms, creating more effective ways to monitor the environment and remove pollutants.

“They may be tiny, but micro-organisms have ‘superhero’ properties which give them enormous potential to have a positive impact on our world,” says Frederic Coulon, Professor of Environmental Chemistry and Microbiology at Cranfield University and EBIC Project Lead.

“Using advanced technologies, the research team will create entirely new organisms or enhance the functions of existing ones. By doing this, we can design micro-organisms that are better suited for environmental tasks like converting waste into valuable resources.”

Working together from lab to field applications, scientists involved in the five-year project will examine ways to develop micro-organisms to target and mitigate negative impacts from polluting substances like plastic waste, hydrocarbons, metals and oil.

Micro-organisms will not only be used to clean up hazardous and toxic pollutants from the environment but also to help regenerate or recycle waste.

Cutting-edge techniques from synthetic biology, biotechnology and environmental engineering will be used. With a focus on responsible and ethical research practices, the research team is set to examine and develop new ways to tackle three key areas:-

• Next-generation biosensing for environmental monitoring and surveillance
• Bioremediation targeting environmental pollutants, promoting cleaner and healthier ecosystems
• Enhanced wastewater and waste management to improve resource recovery, optimise treatment processes and reduce waste generation

Engineering biology is identified as one of the UK government’s five critical technologies in its Science & Technology Framework.

Professor Leon A. Terry, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation at Cranfield University commented: “This new research centre is set to bring together some of the UK’s leading experts in biotechnology to create a world-class hub of excellence.

“Working closely with industry and focused on real-world applications, the research will develop a creative and sustainable way to address some of our most pressing environmental challenges.”

The Universities of Essex and East Anglia are among the nine other universities working with Cranfield on the project. The other seven are Brunel University London, Bangor University, the University of Edinburgh, the University of Southampton, the University of Glasgow, Heriot-Watt University and Newcastle University.