USask awarded $3.2M towards first-in-Canada engineering biology center for ag innovation

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In Canada, the Canada Foundation for Innovation will invest $3.2 million in a unique biomanufacturing facility at the University of Saskatchewan that will use cutting-edge “engineering biology” technologies to accelerate agri-food innovation and help address food security needs, including canola varieties as meat and non-animal enzyme alternatives.

Developing canola varieties more resistant to climate change, flavourings for the plant-based meat industry, and non-animal enzyme alternatives for the dairy industry are a sample of the innovations to be advanced by the new Engineering Biology Agri-food Innovation Centre within the university’s Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS).

“This new centre will establish the University of Saskatchewan as the national node for engineering biology applications in agriculture and food that will accelerate science and innovation to support and grow our agri-food sector,” said USask Vice-President Research Dr. Baljit Singh. “Using automation and other emerging technologies, our researchers will harness the power of biology to design more nutritious and sustainable crop varieties and food products.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau today announced more than $518 million to support the infrastructure needs of universities and research institutions across the country.

Engineering biology is an exploding new field that combines genomics and molecular biology with high-performance computing, automation, and artificial intelligence, potentially transforming what we eat, medicines we take, and fuels we use. A May 2020 report from the McKinsey Global Institute estimates engineering biology could have a global economic impact of up to $4 trillion in the next 10 to 20 years, with more than a third of this direct annual impact in the agri-food area.

“Essentially, engineering biology uses biological machinery of cells to make useful tools and products,” said GIFS Executive Director and CEO Steve Webb, who is also a member of the National Engineering Biology Steering Committee.

An example is flavourings added to pea-based proteins (such as myoglobin and hemoglobin) to make plant-based burgers taste like a regular meat-based burger. The iron-containing molecule heme is highly concentrated in red meat but can also be found in plants.

The CFI funding, made through its Innovation Fund, will be used for critical infrastructure including robots, computers, cell culture systems, and other equipment for the centre. Another $5 million is being sought from private and public sources.