ARC Centre of Excellence in Synthetic Biology

Synthetic Biology


19, Feb 2024

Bringing the sweet to the synthetic

A team at Macquarie University has developed a unique method for analysing sugars in cells to provide valuable insights for synthetic biology.

Distinguished Professor Nicki Packer and team work with glycobiology, a field which explores the sugars attached to proteins, fats and other molecules. These sugars, called glycans, are essential for various biological functions but are not easy to predict because they are produced by numerous enzymes encoded in an organism’s DNA.

Synthetic biology involves creating new biological systems or modifying existing ones for various purposes. But to do this, scientists need to understand the molecular make-up of living organisms. Genomics, which focuses on the study of an organism’s genes, is crucial for this understanding. However, to design synthetic systems effectively, researchers also need to comprehend the traits (phenotype) that the genes produce. And that’s where this work comes in.

By gaining a better understanding of natural glycosylation systems and developing improved methods for engineering glycoproteins, the researchers aim to unlock a wide range of potential applications.

‘Our approach is unique in the field because sugars attached to proteins, which make up a large part of the human genome, are often overlooked due to their complexity,’ says Professor Packer.

One aspect of their research involves studying the relationship between glycans and the gut microbiome, the community of microorganisms living in the digestive system. Understanding how sugars influence microbial ecosystems could lead to new approaches for improving gut health.

‘We’re also exploring how to engineer artificial communities of microorganisms, focusing on how sugars interact with the gut microbiome and affect the formation of biofilms,’ she says.

Her group is also developing glycoengineering methods to synthesise peptides, especially those whose activity depends on the specific structural glycans that they carry.

‘Once we figure out the specific structures and functions of sugars, we’re working on a method called an Artificial Golgi synthetic platform to mimic how cells naturally add sugars to proteins. This involves creating a mix of yeast cells that express specific sugar structures on proteins, purifying the proteins, and then adding more sugars using enzymes in a specific sequence.

‘We believe that better understanding of these natural processes and developing improved methods for modifying proteins will enable us to glycoengineer molecules for practical purposes and lead to innovative applications in materials, food supplements and bioactives.’

Photo: Irham Setyaki on Unsplash