Flagship two - Engineering Biotechnology
Leader: Dr Volker Nock
We bring together rapid prototyping and advanced manufacturing technologies from the engineering disciplines to help inform molecular and cellular life sciences. To achieve this, the flagship incorporates a diversity of input from the physical sciences and engineering with the aim to develop new platforms that help unravel the complexity of biology.
We work with cells, animals and plants and our research spans the biological hierarchy from molecules to whole organisms. We are focused on the following broad areas of activity: 3D printed devices for bioseparations, biomolecular interactions on surfaces, biomolecular interactions related to disease, biochemistry on chips and sourcing of advanced materials from nature’s pantry. In a drive to increase cross-disciplinary research, several major projects are currently being funded under this flagship.
The Biomolecular Engineering Research Group in the Department of Chemical & Process Engineering (CAPE), led by PI Professor Conan Fee and Associate Professor Matt Watson of CAPE, have continued BIC’s world-first work on creating porous materials using 3D printing. This idea, funded through an MBIE Phase 2 ‘Smart Ideas’ grant, has wide applications, including for chromatographic purification of proteins, enzyme catalysis, chemical catalysis, filtration, reactors and even heat exchangers and batteries. In the context of BIC, the major focus has been on protein chromatography and the group has been successful in creating printed agarose monoliths that can separate proteins in the presence of yeast cells. This new approach will eliminate at least two process steps from recombinant and therapeutic protein production processes, reducing cost while increasing yield and bioactivity. The 3D printing work has so far involved around nine doctoral students, 19 other research students, as well as 14 staff across five departments.
Dr Simone Dimartino (former BIC PI now at the University of Edinburgh) recently received the Csaba Horváth Young Scientist award for his presentation on aspects of this work at the 44th International Symposium on High Performance Liquid Phase Separations and Related Techniques, HPLC 2016, San Francisco. The project covers experimental and computational fluid dynamics, materials science, surface chemistry, laser physics, separations and reaction engineering and it has now attracted collaboration from several high-profile international companies, universities and research institutions.
Fungi and their counterparts, the oomycetes, play an important role in the cycle of life as they decompose dead and decaying organic matter. Through this crucial role in the nutrient cycle they influence the well-being of human populations on a large scale. In addition, they touch upon many other aspects of human life, including medicine, food and farming. These benign fungi and oomycetes however, are in stark contrast to their other relatives, who, in search for food, grow as pathogenic species on both plants and animals. These particular species can have detrimental effects on human health and affairs, either directly through infection or indirectly through loss of crop and other species. The ability to locate target plants and animals, and grow invasively into them, are key processes in the pathogenicity of these organisms. For example, spores of certain fungi use electric fields present in roots of trees to detect the presence of these and navigate towards them. Once at the target, spores of pathogenic fungi and oomycetes begin to grow structures in a process called germination, which help them physically invade the target. These structures ultimately develop into long tubular cells called hyphae, which generate protrusive forces at their tips to literally push into the tissue of the target. In the worst case this invasion and subsequent feeding on the target will lead to the demise of the plant or animal.
In New Zealand, pathogenic oomycete and fungi are receiving widespread coverage in the popular press with the spread of Kauri dieback and Myrtle rust. On a global scale the spread of these diseases is made worse by climate change, the emerging drug resistance due to overuse of agrochemicals and an increase in world-wide distribution by human travel and commerce. The aim of this project is thus to establish the antifungal properties of new compounds, plants and other species and inform the development of treatments based on these. To do so, miniaturized sensors and actuators will be used to extend our understanding of the mechanisms that enable fungi and oomycetes to find targets and physically invade them. In particular, the project will develop a platform of so-called Lab-on-a-chip devices based around arrays of electrodes and force sensing micropillars. The former will help to better understand how spores locate tree roots for example, and whether roots could be protected using external electric fields. The latter will help determine the internal mechanisms with which the fungi and oomycetes generate the mechanical forces they use to penetrate their targets. This is likely to involve an interplay of enzymatic breakdown of host tissue and a protrusive force generated by the tip of the growing hypha. The protrusive force will be influenced by two factors: the turgor pressure of the hypha and the yielding capacity of the tip. If the factors that underlie all these mechanisms can be determined, this may impact on how we address the many diseases and infections that occur due to pathogenic fungal and oomycetes.