The University of Tartu Institute of Technology (TUIT) was established to provide research labs and a stimulating environment for returning post-docs and start-up labs. Although the research groups at the institute cover a wide variety of different scientific topics, this diversity in expertise will become beneficial for this interdisciplinary synthetic biology initiative. Our research labs have focused on studying biological model organisms that are used in synthetic biology: bacteria, yeast, plants, and mammalian cell lines. The expertise in various systems will form the basis of the newly created Estonian Centre for Synthetic Biology (ECSB), and the ERA Chair will collaborate with all groups in the institute, to create a smooth and effective entry of existing labs into the field of industrial cell factory design and other applied fields of synthetic biology.
With strong assistance from the ERA Chair and the ERA Chair team, the scientific vision of the ECSB is to become a leading research centre in development of designer cells for microbial cell factories and cell-based biosensors for diagnostics and monitoring. ECSB will combine the experience of the four core facilities in synthetic biology, proteomics, cell culture and microscopy yielding an excellent platform for development of synthetic designer cells for industrial applications and spin-off companies that will move forward with product development when the opportunity arises.
To support the scientific vision of ECSB, the central aim of the SynBioTEC project is to develop the necessary preconditions for the development of microbial cell factories and designer cell based biosensors for diagnostics. The ERA chair will transfer his/her knowledge and experience to the groups at TUIT. In the framework of this collaboration, the groups working on different organisms will shift their focus to synthetic biology, and especially designer cells and will focus on two major research topics:
- Microbial cell factories for the production of bio-based chemicals, thereby promoting the environmental sustainability of the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. In order to achieve these goals and to build highly efficient cell factories and designer cells with other functions, we need to combine an engineering and molecular biology approaches.
- Cell-based biosensors: for improved medical diagnostics, environmental monitoring and analysis.
Fulfilling the scientific vision will enable the ECSB to provide expertise and an accelerated product development cycle for start-up companies and SMEs that work within the area of synthetic biology: Research at ECSB aims to streamline the development of microbial cell factories thereby making it significantly faster than current practice. The core facility will be setup by the ERA Chair and will serve as an experimental platform for young start-up companies. So far, starting a synthetic biology company is relatively difficult because of the need for significant upfront investments into equipment. The core facilities of ECSB will offer a full experimental service for start-up companies. In this way, each company can perform the full design, construction, testing and optimization cycle without excessive investment into equipment. Already a very good example of such model is the synthetic biology company Icosagen Cell Factory OÜ, which began as a spin-off from the Institute of Technology and has developed into the flagship of the Estonian biotech industry.
In order to create a spill-over effect from the scientific vision and to ensure a steady supply of highly qualified personnel for ECSB, a graduate program in biomechanical engineering will be launched. ECSB aims to create a hybrid graduate program in engineering and molecular biology. The multidisciplinary character of biomedical engineering will capitalize on the expertise of the various research groups from diverse disciplines to develop a curriculum that focuses on the application of engineering principles to synthetic biology. The mission of the program is to encourage and support collaborative research that is designed to produce new knowledge and technology that embraces biology as a new engineering paradigm and applies engineering principles to medical problems and biological systems.