Professor Mark Howarth (Department of Biochemistry)
Synthetic biology, the engineering of living systems, is likely to generate major changes to society in areas including energy, healthcare and agriculture. Proteins are powerful tools in synthetic biology because of their diverse activities, including catalysing reactions and sensing changes in the environment. Nowadays engineering of individual proteins is often efficient. Nonetheless proteins usually work in teams and it has been a major challenge to control how proteins come together into larger assemblies. The problems come from unstable or non-specific links between the different proteins. Howarth’s group has established a powerful new approach to connect proteins of interest. This approach, SpyTag and SpyCatcher, harnesses chemistry from the dangerous bacterium Streptococcus pyogenes. Simply upon mixing, SpyTag and SpyCatcher form a specific and unbreakable bond with each other, locking together the two proteins of interest. This protein superglue works in bacteria, worms, mammals and plants and has been used by many students, academics and companies. Howarth’s group has applied SpyTag to make “SpyRing” enzymes resilient to boiling, capture circulating tumour cells with high sensitivity, and accelerate vaccine generation. This new vaccine platform has led to the spinout SpyBiotech, showing strong potential against global health challenges including malaria, cytomegalovirus and HIV.