The Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust has awarded a $2 million grant to the Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Under the leadership of Principal Investigator Dr. Huimin Zhao and co-Principal Investigator Dr. Christopher Rao, the grant will be disbursed over two years to provide instrumentation and core facilities for a new research theme devoted to the new scientific subdiscipline of synthetic biology.
"I'm hugely excited by the potential of synthetic biology at the IGB," said Zhao. "We're doing something different, I think, from other synthetic biology centers in the world by focusing on higher eukaryotes. We will develop foundational synthetic biology technologies and computational platforms for the genetic modification of plants and animals to address grand challenges in human health and environmental sustainability. This grant will provide powerful research tools to assist us in that."
Various groups at the University of Illinois have received grants from the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust in the past, including two in 2011 for a total of $215,000.
The new research theme, led by Zhao, Centennial Chair Professor of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, currently counts twelve University of Illinois faculty members among its own, from seven different departments. It is partly this interdisciplinary nature, says Zhao, which will allow the new theme to produce important results.
"Most synthetic biology centers work with bacterial cells, like E. coli," said Zhao. "We will be one of the first to develop new synthetic biology tools for plant and mammalian cells. This has the possibility to create huge scientific advances, like plants with better photosynthetic capacities, or gene therapy for diseases like sickle cell anemia and inherited cancers."
To do this, the researchers will have to create new technologies able to efficiently and cost-effectively construct large DNA molecules such as pathways and vectors and alter the expression of multiple genes simultaneously within the cells of plants and animals-technologies that do not yet exist. This is where much of the grant money will be directed, said Zhao.
"These tools have the potential to vastly improve everything from crop yields to quality of life. I think this new theme will be doing important work." Roy Carver was an industrialist and philanthropist, famous for his tire manufacturing company Bandag Inc., as well as a University of Illinois graduate (class of '34). The Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust was established after his death to further biomedical and scientific research, as well as children's education and recreation. Grants are dispersed largely to programs in Illinois or Indiana, where he spent a majority of his life.