Waterloo biologist part of a research collaboration creating new genetic toolbox

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Trevor CharlesWaterloo biologist Trevor Charles is part of a newly formed collaboration that has received $250,000 in funding from Genome Canada’s Disruptive Innovations in Genomics (DIG) program to retool a well-studied bacterial strain into accepting genetic material from other bacterial species. The new genetic toolbox will have wide-ranging applications from generating new bioplastics to fighting devastating plant pathogens.

The partnership brings together scientists and graduate students from University of Waterloo, McMaster University and the the company Designer Microbes Inc. in London Ontario.

“Each of the three partners brings key knowledge and expertise to developing this technology, which is ideal for studying all sorts of difficult to grow bacteria,” says Charles, professor of Biology at the University of Waterloo and one of the project’s leading partners.

Led by McMaster University, the two-year proof-of-concept project focuses on adapting the well-studied bacterium Sinorhizobium meliloti to become a synthetic genome host. Next, they’ll apply the technology to improve bioplastic production using methanotrophs.

 G. Meglei)Charles, an expert on bacterial genetics who has recently begun working on methanotrophs because of their ability to produce bioplastics from waste methane. Currently, the bacteria only produces one type of bioplastic but if the scientists can tweak the bacteria to produce other varieties of bioplastics of higher value, they could close the loop on waste methane at landfills, anaerobic digesters and wastewater treatment plants.

Transmission Electron Microscope (TEM) picture of Sinorhizobium meliloti cells, filled with bioplastics granules (Photo credit: Gabriela Meglei). 

“Methanotrophs are hard to work with, but because they are closely related to S. meliloti, you can transfer the methanotroph’s genome and manipulate it as part of the S. meliloti system,” says Charles, also an Associate Director for Waterloo’s Centre for Bioengineering and Biotechnology.

S. meliloti is a common, nitrogen-fixing bacterium found on the roots of alfalfa plants, and according to the researchers at McMaster who’ve studied it for years, it provides the perfect cross-species platform for a variety of applications.

Experts in genome transfer and genetic manipulation at Designer Microbes, working with graduate students at McMaster, Waterloo and Western, will develop the technique behind transferring the genome into the S. meliloti host, manipulating the genome and successfully transferring it back into the original bacterium.

The partners plan to explore additional applications of this technology, especially involving bacteria that have never been grown in culture, once their initial trial is complete. Dr. Turlough Finan leads the researchers at McMaster, and Dr. Bogumil Karas is the lead at Designer Microbes.

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