Case study: Kyle Grant

‘Real world application’ of synthetic biology

It was the ‘real world application’ of synthetic biology that attracted Kyle to the programme at the Synthetic Biology CDT. He studied microbiology at undergraduate level and completed an MRes in Biophysics, during which time he developed a keen interest in astrobiology and secured a placement at the NASA Space Life Sciences Laboratory. Kyle’s colleagues at NASA had an emergent interest in synthetic biology, especially in applications that could be used to support longer space missions, and it was this that persuaded Kyle to apply for the Synthetic Biology DPhil programme.

Kyle defines synthetic biology as ‘the design and redesign of biological parts and systems’ – similar to engineering design, but using DNA and transcriptional regulators instead of circuit boards. In his view the major strength of the CDT programme is the training year, because it gives students the opportunity to try out different projects and potentially change their minds about the focus of their DPhil. Kyle chose to do his DPhil in an area that started out as his second choice project – the group of Professor Phil Poole in the Department of Plant Sciences.

Phil Poole’s group is working on a large and ambitious project to enable cereal crops to fix nitrogen in the same way that plants such as beans and peas do. This involves the design and development of synthetic symbioses between nitrogen-fixing bacteria and plants such as wheat or rice. Achieving this would free the world’s farmers from their dependence on nitrogen-based fertilisers, which are both expensive and extremely destructive to the environment.

As part of this project, Kyle is working with the bacteria that live naturally amongst the roots of cereal crops. By harnessing the natural process of enzyme-catalysed nitrogen-fixation, he is aiming to create genetic circuitry within the bacteria that will provide fertiliser to the target crop. He likens this process to wiring up a lightbulb: the lightbulb will only work with the correct circuitry; and will only turn on when you want it to.

The Synthetic Biology CDT is tripartite, which Kyle feels is extremely beneficial; it gives students exposure to ideas at other universities (in this case Warwick and Bristol) and enables them to exchange strategies. For example, Kyle is using similar gene-editing techniques to a student at Bristol who is working on red blood cells rather than bacteria, so they have been able to problem-solve together – something that Kyle regards as a very valuable aspect of the programme.

The techniques involved in Kyle’s research are cutting-edge and NASA is extremely interested in their potential. In the coming decades NASA seriously envisages the possibility of developing colonies on the Moon and on Mars. By using the kind of engineering that Kyle is engaged in, it should be possible to create bacteria that can optimise plant growth in lunar or Martian soils, or bacteria that can regenerate significant amounts of oxygen. Advances like these would represent a huge improvement in both efficiency and sustainability over processes which at the moment are largely chemically-based, and might well have knock-on benefits for life on earth as well.

Kyle feels that the CDT’s scientific support team really allows students to focus on their key mission. During his DPhil course he has spent more time at NASA, looking at their life support capsules and how synthetic biology might be used to make them more self-sustaining.