Dr Alan Tunnacliffe, Reader in Biotechnology at the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, was recently awarded a prestigious European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Investigator Grant worth €2.5 million.
The scheme encourages applicants to 'to go beyond established frontiers of knowledge', to aim high, be adventurous and take risks in their proposals. Applicants were expected to be the very best scientists, scholars and engineers, with a track-record of significant research achievements. Dr Tunnacliffe was one of five Cambridge scientists to win the ERC grant.
The full project title is Surviving the dry state: engineering a desiccation-tolerant mammalian cell (DRYLIFE). Certain plants, animals and micro-organisms are able to dry out completely and yet remain viable, a phenomenon known as anhydrobiosis ("life without water") or desiccation tolerance. This project addresses the molecular mechanisms responsible for desiccation tolerance and aims to confer these mechanisms on desiccation-sensitive mammalian cells, establishing a new field in biotechnology: a form of synthetic biology called anhydrobiotic engineering.
One feature of anhydrobiotic organisms is the production of many examples of highly hydrophilic proteins (or "hydrophilins") in preparation for severe dehydration. Although data are limited, these hydrophilins are suggested to fulfil various roles in preserving homeostasis of the desiccating cell, including the maintenance of protein, nucleic acid and membrane structure. The project will investigate the function of hydrophilins, engineer these and other elements as desiccation protection modules, and introduce modules into mammalian cell lines. By combining protection modules and using an iterative deployment strategy, the project ultimately aims to achieve an engineered mammalian cell with high viability in the dried state.
Anhydrobiotic engineering will find applications in cell banking, e.g. of hybridoma collections, and cell-based technologies including tissue engineering and biosensors. Principles established should be applicable to agriculture, where drought-resistant crops, or desiccation-tolerant biopesticides are envisaged.
The figure shows two invertebrates able to undergo anhydrobiosis: Adineta ricciae (top), a bdelloid rotifer; and Aphelenchus avenae (bottom), a mycophagous nematode. Discoveries on the molecular mechanisms of desiccation tolerance made in these and other organisms will form the basis of the new cell engineering project. Credits: (top) Dr Chiara Boschetti; (bottom) Dr Kshamata Goyal