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Dr Harrison Steel
University of Oxford
Philip Leverhulme Prize

Unlocking the potential of engineered biotechnologies

Harrison Steel aims to engineer the enabling tools necessary for biotechnological transformation in the twenty-first century

Three black boxes: bioreactor system
The open-source Chi.Bio bioreactor system (https://chi.bio) used widely in biotechnology research and development. Photograph: Harrison Steel.

The availability of fundamental enabling tools has long driven progress in science and engineering; methods for measuring, actuating, analysing or designing systems allow researchers to ask new questions, deepen their understanding of nature and leverage this understanding to drive technological development. Over the past two decades, bioscience research has accelerated rapidly, with factors such as the plunging costs of DNA sequencing and synthesis opening the door to new research approaches and, indeed, entire fields. These significant advancements are now being applied outside engineering and synthetic biology: in areas ranging from biomedicine to agriculture and biomanufacturing. However, adapting natural systems – themselves emerging from billions of years of evolution – to design engineered biotechnologies that behave reliably and safely at scale remains challenging.

At the core of this challenge is a rudimental disconnect between the context in which researchers study biosystems – under carefully controlled laboratory conditions – and the environments in which engineered biosystems must operate in practice – the messy, variable complexity of nature. To help address this context gap, my research has focused on developing technologies that imbue engineered biosystems with the robustness observed in their natural counterparts. This approach leverages tools from control engineering, which is similarly foundational to the reliability of technologies we take for granted in fields spanning transport, energy systems and manufacturing. 

To achieve this paradigm shift in reliability, our approach needs to be interdisciplinary, combining control systems implemented internally (e.g. functions programmed in a cell’s DNA) and externally (e.g. automated robotic experimental platforms) to living organisms. Examples of the former include my team’s development of biosensors and regulatory architectures implemented using biomolecules, enabling bacteria to behave consistently when exposed to changing environments. Meanwhile, these experimental developments have been enabled by new robotic tools developed in our research (such as the Chi.Bio bioreactor system), which we disseminated as open-source technologies; they are now employed worldwide by academic and industrial researchers to support their own innovations.

Looking to the future, prize funds will allow me to build an international research programme that supports the fundamental development and subsequent scale-up and dissemination of essential enabling technologies for twenty-first-century biotechnology. As biotechnology plays an increasing role in our lives and society, we hope that our open, inclusive approach will widen participation and ensure its great potential for good is shared equitably.

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