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Synthesising sustainable polymers

Professor Jason Chin FMedSci FRS, Chief Scientific Officer, Constructive Bio.

"This innovation in manufacturing was facilitated by the long-term funding provided by the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, and a supportive investment community for commercialisation."

Professor Jason Chin is Chief Scientific Officer of Constructive Bio, a spin-out launched in 2022 from the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology based in Cambridge. Developed over 20 years of R&D, Constructive Bio now has the capability to manufacture novel synthetic polymers from living bacterial cells as bio-factories using sustainable and non-fossil materials. It will use these technologies to biosynthesise new classes of enzymes, pharmaceuticals, and biomaterials.

An example of a synthetic cell.
An example of a synthetic cell.

Major scientific advances were required to enable Professor Chin and his team to reprogramme the genetic code of living organisms. First, they built an entirely synthetic bacterial genome of four megabases from chemically synthesised DNA. This genome uses a subset of the 64 naturally occurring DNA codons to code for the twenty common amino acids required for life, freeing up the remaining codons to code for alternative molecules other than amino acids. Second, they engineered new translational machinery to take advantage of these freed codons. This required making new transfer RNA and synthetase enzymes to recognise the freed codons and pick up and carry specific molecules from within the cell. Last, they engineered new ribosomes, the platforms upon which synthesis happens, to join the molecules to form polymers. This means that cells can now be programmed to manufacture polymers, composed of specific molecules linked in a defined order, by the addition of synthetic DNA.

The new synthetic system works in parallel to the natural equivalent, allowing the bacteria to live on low carbon sustainable feed, whilst also acting as a platform to manufacture novel polymers which could be used for a range of products such as medicines or biodegradable plastics. These synthetic bio-factories also have advantages over using naturally occurring cells for production, such as inbuilt resistance to viruses which can contaminate cultures and reduce bio manufacturing yields.

With the ability to construct polymers not found in nature, Constructive Bio also aims to ensure that any novel polymer produced can be degraded back to its monomer constituents, and where necessary they will create pathways to convert polymers back to their monomers. These monomers can then be recycled into new polymers which avoids the environmental buildup of new polymers.

Constructive Bio is currently in the process of scaling and commercialising the designed technologies, and holds significant potential to build the sustainable industries of the future.


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