GIFS Executive Director and CEO Steve Webb. (Photo: University of Saskatchewan)

USask awarded $3.2M towards first-in-Canada engineering biology centre for ag innovation

The Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) will invest $3.2 million in a unique biomanufacturing facility at the University of Saskatchewan (USask) that will use cutting-edge “engineering biology” technologies to accelerate agri-food innovation and help address food security needs.

By USask Research Profile and Impact

Developing canola varieties more resistant to climate change, flavourings for the plant-based meat industry, and non-animal enzyme alternatives for the dairy industry are a sample of the innovations to be advanced by the new Engineering Biology Agri-food Innovation Centre within the university’s Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS).

“This new centre will establish the University of Saskatchewan as the national node for engineering biology applications in agriculture and food that will accelerate science and innovation to support and grow our agri-food sector,” said USask Vice-President Research Dr. Baljit Singh. “Using automation and other emerging technologies, our researchers will harness the power of biology to design more nutritious and sustainable crop varieties and food products.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau today announced more than $518 million to support the infrastructure needs of universities and research institutions across the country.

Engineering biology is an exploding new field that combines genomics and molecular biology with high-performance computing, automation, and artificial intelligence, potentially transforming what we eat, medicines we take, and fuels we use. A May 2020 report from the McKinsey Global Institute estimates engineering biology could have a global economic impact of up to $4 trillion in the next 10 to 20 years, with more than a third of this direct annual impact in the agri-food area.

“Essentially, engineering biology uses biological machinery of cells to make useful tools and products,” said GIFS Executive Director and CEO Steve Webb, who is also a member of the National Engineering Biology Steering Committee.

An example is flavourings added to pea-based proteins (such as myoglobin and hemoglobin) to make plant-based burgers taste like a regular meat-based burger. The iron-containing molecule heme is highly concentrated in red meat but can also be found in plants.

The CFI funding, made through its Innovation Fund, will be used for critical infrastructure including robots, computers, cell culture systems, and other equipment for the centre. Another $5 million is being sought from private and public sources.

“Engineering biology integrates automation, biology and computation—the ‘ABC’ approach—to advance research and new product development by accelerating the design-build-test-and-learn cycle. This technology platform provides the capacity for research and development that is beyond the reach of traditional approaches,” Webb said.

“This will help us develop new plant varieties that can withstand climate change, as well as nutritious food products and natural products with medical benefits such as specialized proteins that kill bacteria.”

Webb said researchers in academe and industry will be able to order from the centre’s bio-manufacturing facility or “biofoundry” the DNA, RNA, peptides, and other proteins needed for their studies.

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As the recent McKinsey study notes, the first wave of genetically engineered crops in the 1990s has been referred to as GMOs—organisms with foreign (transgenic) genetic material introduced. Today, with marker-assisted breeding and other advances in genetic engineering such as gene editing, breeders can use DNA markers linked to desirable traits to select these traits without using transgenic approaches.

USask plant scientist Tim Sharbel. (Photo: Submitted)

USask plant scientist Tim Sharbel, lead researcher on the team, said engineering biology will enable the team to take the next step in the application of genomics to agriculture.

“We can now identify important genes but translating this into something that’s useful to industry and beneficial to society is a gap that’s been very difficult until now,” said Sharbel.

Marrying biological science with the power of automation and computers will enable scientists to run many tests in parallel, rather than manually conducting them one at a time, enabling the rapid production and testing of thousands of gene and protein variants for development of new products and plant varieties.

More than 20 researchers across campus are part of the user team that will employ the new platform for crop improvement and health applications, including food, nutrition and pharmaceuticals. Students will have the opportunity to learn how to apply engineering biology to address real-world problems in agriculture and food production. 

For instance, USask pharmacy researcher Jane Alcorn will use the platform to create compounds for discovering new drug candidates. USask nutrition researcher Carol Henry will use new protein variants produced at the facility to improve the nutritional quality of foods. Agricultural researcher Bobbi Helgason will use the facility to enhance plant-microbial interactions that help plants with stress tolerance. Key researchers from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the National Research Council, and the private sector will also use the platform.

The centre’s technology platform—which will comprise separate “suites” for engineering biology, proteomics and genomics, and metabolomics (the study of small molecules in an organism)—will be integrated into the workflow of GIFS’s existing technology platforms, which include the Omics and Precision Agriculture Laboratory (OPAL), Data Management and Analytics, and Cell Biology.

With its focus on agriculture and food, the new centre will be an important node within the Canadian Engineering Biology Network which includes other universities, research organizations and companies in Canada. The centre will enable collaboration with other Canadian universities that have biofoundries, as well as with industry and international partners such as the U.S., U.K., Australia, and Singapore.

Creation of an engineering biology “platform” for innovation in agriculture and food products is aligned with the vision in the national steering committee’s November 2020 white paper which identifies food security as one of three sectors where Canada can lead in the application of engineering biology. 

USask is home to a thriving agricultural technology hub. Read more about USask’s innovative agtech research here: