Engineering the bacterial cellulose producer K. rhaeticus iGEM to create new cellulose materials

Lead Research Organisation: Imperial College London
Department Name: Dept of Bioengineering


Bacterial cellulose is an ultra-pure carbohydrate polymer, which is biocompatible with a high tensile strength and water holding potential. Synthetic biology holds the potential to engineer the bacteria, which produce cellulose to create new biopolymers with different functional characteristics for practical applications. One of the most efficient producers of bacterial cellulose is the Gram-negative bacterium Komagataeibacter rhaeticus (k. rhaeticus IGEM), isolated from a kombucha tea SCOBY. Past work on this bacterium led to the development of the K. rhaeticus synthetic biology toolkit v1.0, which provided the basic tools to regulate cellulose production with signal molecules such as AHL. We hope to expand upon this tool kit to provide alternative methods of regulating cellulose production, as well as providing methods to alter the morphology, spatial arrangement and functional properties of bacterial cellulose. We plan to add to the toolkit, CRISPR/Cas9 based genomic modification; CRISPRi gene regulation and trans-membrane photoreceptor proteins sensors. These will allow for the precise control of cellulose synthesis. Following the expansion of the toolkit, we plan to use these tools to alter the properties of bacterial cellulose and create patterned and functionalised composite materials.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
EP/N509486/1 01/10/2016 31/03/2022
1846146 Studentship EP/N509486/1 01/10/2016 31/03/2020 Kenneth Thomas Walker
Title This is GMO. 
Description In 'This is GMO.' Keane introduces the next phase in her work by joining forces with synthetic biologist, Marcus Walker, a PHD candidate at Imperial College London, who has used genetic engineering techniques to develop a self-dyeing bacterium that produces both cellulose and melanin, a natural pigment found in squid ink, hair and skin. Employing this bacterium in Keane's microbial weaving process, together they have grown the first sneaker upper woven and dyed by a single genetically modified organism. It is also 100% compostable and contains no synthetic materials or dyes. Sharing a vision for the future where design and science work together to create fabrication systems better informed by biology, Keane and Walker hope the project will encourage further interdisciplinary collaboration and inspire a public conversation around synthetic biology and genetic modification. The project was made possible through the support of the Mills Fabrica, Hong Kong Innospace and Tom Ellis Lab at Imperial College. 
Type Of Art Artefact (including digital) 
Year Produced 2019 
Impact Initial response from digital release has been positive, however further exhibiting is still to be conducted. 
Description The objectives of this project are:
1. To further characterise the bacterium K. rhaeticus iGEM at the genomic and transcriptomic level.
2. Develop new tools that grant more control cellulose synthesis and protein expression in K. rhaeticus iGEM.
3. To alter the bacterial cellulose biomaterial produced by K. rhaeticus iGEM.

- The use of long-read sequencing technologies to improve our knowledge of the genome of K. rhaeticus iGEM. (objective 1)
- Using chemical cell-to-cell communication to localise protein expression at the boundary between two bacterial cellulose pellicles. (objective 2)
- Using genetic engineering of K. rhaeticus iGEM to produce a pigment which changes the colour and physical properties of bacterial cellulose. (objective 3)
- Early work indicating the ability of using CRISPR interference to regulate gene expression in K. rhaeticus iGEM (objective 2)
- Successful demonstration of optogenetcis in K. rhaeticus iGEM. (objective 2)
Exploitation Route Academic:
- The additional genomic and transcriptomic knowledge will enable further research into the bacterial physiology of pellicle formation.

The ability to produce a pigment in bacterial cellulose via genetic engineering could be useful in the fashion and textiles industry. These industries are under pressure to produce more sustainable and less polluting methods of textile manufacturing and dying.
Sectors Creative Economy,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology

Description The melanin producing bacterial cellulose was used to create a GM shoe prototype. This work was done in collaboration with biodesigner Jen Keane.
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Creative Economy
Impact Types Cultural