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By Larissa Sherman 27 August 2021 6 min read

Ever wondered how it's possible to make plastics without petroleum products? Or how we can use microorganisms to clean pollutants from our water, soil and air? Have you ever pondered how we can isolate carbon from the atmosphere with the help of bacteria cells? Or how it's possible to produce medical treatments like insulin without needing animal parts? 

Meet Dr Janet Reid

These are the questions Dr Janet Reid is tackling as manager of the CSIRO BioFoundry[Link will open in a new window]. In her role, Janet leads our BioFoundry, working with researchers[Link will open in a new window] to create potential solutions to the world’s big problems.

Ever heard of a biofoundry? It's a purpose-built lab that utilises robotics and automation with hardware and software solutions to rapidly design, build and test new biotechnologies.

The field of science driving the work within the lab is synthetic biology. It’s the application of engineering principles to biology. The research designs biological systems to provide more sustainable and effective solutions to environmental, health and industry challenges. Our new CSIRO BioFoundry offers a full suite of specialist equipment to meet the needs of high-volume projects in synthetic biology.

There are also significant commercial benefits to the work happening behind our BioFoundry doors. For example, many synthetic biology processes use microorganisms like yeast and bacteria in industrial fermentation, with sugar as a feedstock. These processes convert sugar to higher-value products, such as chemicals, fibres and biofuels. The new higher-value products can be worth 10- to 1000 times more than the starting material. This offers incredible opportunities for businesses and industries looking to diversify.

Journey from PhD on prostate cancer

It’s been quite a remarkable journey Janet has found herself on. After leaving university with a degree in microbiology, Janet undertook a PhD researching prostate cancer. It’s the most common cancer in Australian men, apart from common skin cancers.

During this time, Janet was researching the interaction between a group of proteases involved in prostate cancer progression. Proteases are enzymes that can break the bonds of other proteins to change their function. Her research provided insight into some of the mechanisms behind the advance and metastasis of prostate cancer.

Super-bugs beware!

Building on the skills in molecular and cell biology that she gained during her PhD, Janet began work with the Community for Open Antimicrobial Drug Discovery (CO-ADD). The not-for-profit initiative is led by academics at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience at The University of Queensland (UQ) and supported by the Wellcome Trust and UQ.

Antimicrobial resistance occurs when microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites, change in ways that render the medications used to cure the infections they cause ineffective. When the microorganisms become resistant to most antimicrobials, we refer to them as “superbugs”. Superbugs are a major concern because a resistant infection may kill, can spread to others, and impose huge costs to individuals and society.

Janet's work at CO-ADD involved developing high-throughput screening protocols for assessing adverse effects of anti-microbial compounds. 

“I couldn’t believe how lucky I was working with and learning from the CO-ADD group. They're a group that is accelerating the discovery of antimicrobials,” Janet says.

“It was through this work that I realised that a significant path of big scientific discovery is in the ability to harness the power of high-throughput analysis and automation in every stage.

"All the way from data generation in the lab to data analysis and prediction, for instance." 

Enzymes: nature's nonotechnology

Janet says one example of how our BioFoundry can be used is illustrated by its application in directed evolution. In 2018, Professor Frances Arnold of the California Institute of Technology[Link will open in a new window] won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. It was in recognition of her invention of a technique called directed evolution of enzymes, which has revolutionised biotechnology.

Enzymes are nature’s nanotechnology. At just a few billionths of a metre in diameter, these nanomachines speed up every chemical reaction in living cells. While they may be small, without them life wouldn’t be possible.

There are hundreds of uses for enzymes. You can find them in washing detergent, helping to make chemically complex pharmaceuticals, and even breaking down pollution in the environment. Unfortunately, enzymes found in nature often don’t fit the bill to be applied directly to solve problems. This could be because in their natural form they are too slow, or their shelf life is too short. This is where directed evolution comes in. Directed evolution mimics natural evolution, using a selection process to screen through versions of the enzyme carrying random mutations that could improve their function. Once you find an improved mutant enzyme, you repeat the whole process. In each round of selection, you make incremental improvements in the enzyme. Until it meets the desired specifications needed to be applied to solve a particular challenge.

To make the most of this technique you need to screen through mutant enzymes in their thousands, millions or more. The more you can screen, the better the chances are that you’ll find what you’re looking for. This is where a biofoundry becomes useful. By automating the directed evolution process you can vastly increase how many mutants you can screen. As a result, reducing the time each round of selection takes.

Ethical foundations

Our BioFoundry is working with researchers to do directed evolution with an enzyme called an esterase. It’s a class of enzyme with applications as in plastics degradation, washing detergents, green chemistry, biofuel production and much more.

But it’s not just the outcomes of her work in the fields of sustainability that makes Janet proud. It’s also the ethical approach our synthetic biology research is built upon.

“Our BioFoundry is built on a philosophy of responsible development of synthetic biology technology. We are constantly striving for ethical and socially acceptable outcomes. We work with social scientists to engage and connect with the public about progress in the field of synthetic biology," Janet said.

A Roadmap to the future

Combining her experience in cell and molecular biology with high-throughput process development, Janet has set up our BioFoundry as a key piece of infrastructure to support bioengineering research groups across Australia and the world. The BioFoundry offers a suite of specialist equipment to meet the needs of high-volume projects in synthetic biology. Above all, she feels that the cross-disciplinary nature of our organisation adds value to the research across all sections of research fields.

“Synthetic Biology applications can solve some of our most pressing issues, ones that I’m passionate about solving that see a direct benefit to the environment and human health,” Janet says.

The recently released A National Synthetic Biology Roadmap[Link will open in a new window] outlines a vision for synthetic biology to deliver $27 billion in annual revenue and 44,000 jobs for Australia.

According to our report, the two biggest sectors to benefit from synthetic biology are the food and agriculture sectors ($19 billion) and the health and medicine sectors ($7 billion).

“I am excited that Australia could become a leader in a thriving bio-economy,” Janet says.

“We can help to develop solutions that lower environmental impact and I see the CSIRO BioFoundry as being a key driver in the necessary innovation.”

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