$14.8M grant backs Illinois-Singapore precision fermentation partnership

Posted: 19 June 2024 | | No comments yet

A grant had been awarded to University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign researchers and partners in Singapore to convert sugars and inedible parts of crops into healthier foods.


Working in partnership, researchers at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and scientists in Singapore have received a $14.8 million grant for precision fermentation for food.

The researchers are said to be taking a novel approach to creating food building blocks at the microbial level.

The team is being led by Food Science & Human Nutrition Professor Yong-Su Jin and will receive the grant over a five year period. The money will be used to develop the “Centre for Precision Fermentation and Sustainability” (PreFerS).

Singapore’s National Research Foundation (NRF) made the award to the Illinois Advanced Research Center at Singapore Ltd. (Illinois ARCS), a U. of I. affiliated centre. 

PreFerS are set to focus on enhancing the reliable, cost-effective production of safe, nutritious, and appetising foods. In fact, the research will advance technologies for microbial cell engineering -creating metabolic pathways in microorganisms – to convert readily available compounds like sugars into targeted, nutritional molecules including alternative proteins, healthy lipids, and vitamins.

The aim of this work is for PreFerS to improve food supply chain resilience, reduce environmental impacts of food and nutrient production, and directly address hidden hunger, also referred to as micronutrient deficiency.

“By converting sugars and inedible parts of crops into healthier foods, we can take what is already provided in plants and use it to create a more balanced, nutritious, and good-tasting diet. We believe this work can play a major role in human health and address inequities in food supplies the world over — without contributing to global climate change,” explained Jin.

Also involved in the PreFerS leadership team from Illinois are Ting Lu, Professor of bioengineering; Michael Miller, Professor of food science and human nutrition; and Vijay Singh, Professor of agricultural and biological engineering. U. of I. co-investigators include Christopher Rao and Huimin Zhao, professors of chemical and biomolecular engineering; Jeremy Guest and Na Wei, Associate Professors of civil and environmental engineering; and former Illinois Research Scientist Yalin Li, Assistant Professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rutgers University.

In addition, the PreFerS team will be supported by the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment (iSEE) and assisted by Guest, iSEE’s Associate Director for research; and Madhu Khanna, iSEE’s Director and Alvin H. Baum Family Chair.

“I am grateful for the time and work iSEE has devoted to help us secure the funding for PreFerS, and I look forward to the Institute’s continued support,” explained Jin, before sharing that Tamer Basar, former Executive Director of Illinois ARCS, and Jayson Koh, Managing Director of Illinois ARCS, were also instrumental in securing the NRF award.

“We have seen food companies successfully produce novel food ingredients with precision fermentation, and our scientific understanding and technological capabilities are growing rapidly. The first thrust of PreFerS will improve the precision fermentation toolset, maximising efficient production of target food products and minimizing unnecessary byproducts,” shared Guest.

 “The second thrust centers on bioprocess engineering and will focus on scaling up fermentation in a way that is both cost-effective and environmentally responsible.”

In-Depth Focus: Alternative Proteins

PreFerS will be based at NRF’s Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise (CREATE) located on the National University of Singapore campus, where the Illinois ARCS offices are also situated.

“Food security and sustainability are a major concern in Singapore and globally. We believe the work done by this new research team on a fermentation-based food supply will help Singapore reach its goal to produce 30 percent of its nation’s nutritional needs locally by 2030,” explained Khanna.

“And the results of this interdisciplinary effort will have far-reaching implications for safe, healthy, and sustainable foods across the world, while also mitigating the effects conventional agriculture can have on the climate.”

“The strength of this collaboration lies in our ability to unite global partners in addressing global challenges,” added Germán Bollero, dean of the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at U. of I.

“By bringing together diverse expertise and innovative minds from Illinois and Singapore, we are not only pushing the boundaries of scientific discovery but also unlocking untapped potential in precision fermentation. This partnership exemplifies how collaborative efforts can drive transformative solutions for food security and sustainability, ultimately benefiting communities worldwide.”

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