• Harvesting Penicillin from Yeast Cells
    Dr Tom Ellis
  • Dr Ali Awan

News & Views

Harvesting Penicillin from Yeast Cells

May 08 2017

Scientists from Imperial College London (ICL) have successfully inserted fungus genes into a yeast cell to make it produce penicillin molecules. In this early stage research* the synthetic biologists found that the re-engineered yeast, which manufactured the nonribosomal peptide antibiotic penicillin, displayed antibacterial properties against streptococcus bacteria when tested under laboratory conditions.

Dr Tom Ellis, from the Centre for Synthetic Biology at Imperial College London, explains: “Humans have been experimenting with yeast for thousands of years. From brewing beer to getting our bread to rise and more recently for making compounds like anti-malarial drugs, yeast is the microscopic workhorse behind many processes.

“The rise of drug-resistant superbugs has brought a real urgency to our search for new antibiotics. Our experiments show that yeast can be engineered to produce a well-known antibiotic. This opens up the possibility of using yeast to explore the largely untapped treasure trove of compounds in the nonribosomal peptide family to develop a new generation of antibiotics and anti-inflammatories.”

Dr Ali Awan, co-author from the Department of Bioengineering at Imperial College London, explains: “Fungi have had millions of years to evolve the capability to produce bacteria-killing penicillin. We scientists have only been working with yeast in this context for a handful of years, but now that we’ve developed the blueprint for coaxing yeast to make penicillin, we are confident we can further refine this method to create novel drugs in the future.

“We believe yeast could be the new mini-factories of the future, helping us to experiment with new compounds in the nonribosomal peptide family to develop drugs that counter antimicrobial resistance.”

The team are currently looking for fresh sources of funding and new industrial collaborators to take their research to the next level.

The research was carried out in conjunction with SynbiCITE, which is the UK’s national centre for the commercialisation of synthetic biology.

*Published in Nature Communications

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