The Singapore Centre for Environmental Life Sciences Engineering (SCELSE) is a unique interdisciplinary Research Centre of Excellence (RCE), funded by National Research Foundation, Singapore Ministry of Education, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and National University of Singapore (NUS). Hosted by NTU in partnership with NUS, SCELSE is linking new insights from the life sciences with expertise from the emerging technologies in engineering and natural sciences to understand, harness and control microbial biofilm communities. The union of these fields has established a new discipline of environmental life sciences engineering (ELSE).
Undoubtedly the main challenges facing humankind include securing the availability of clean water and maintaining a sustainable environment. Clearly, modern urban living has disrupted the biological processes core to such systems to the level that the sustainability of a life-supporting environment is now threatened. The biological processes essential for providing clean water and a sustainable environment reside with the activities of microbial communities, that turn the wheels of all biogeochemical cycles in both natural and engineered systems.
SCELSE is designed to meet these challenges.
SCELSE research focuses on the universality of microbial biofilm communities. Unravelling microbial biodiversity and function in complex microbial communities enables SCELSE researchers to identify key mechanisms involved in biofilm biology.
The exploratory power available to SCELSE researchers, from lab scale and bioreactor to full-scale environmental and engineered systems, combined with an unrivalled level of interdisciplinary expertise places SCELSE in a unique position, to deliver a comprehensive understanding of all aspects of a microbial system.
SCELSE is deciphering the biology of microbial biofilm communities in environmental and engineered systems. Importantly, the use of new molecular tools (genomics, proteomics, and metabolomics) for prospecting biofilms will demonstrate communal metabolic capacity and diversity, far surpassing the combined activities of individual member species. Moreover, obtaining high-resolution information from huge multi-layered databases, now possible through significant advances in analytical, bio-informatics, and bio-computational tools, will facilitate our understanding of community behaviour in complex natural and engineered habitats.
Information gained on basic mechanisms of microbial community signalling interactions at micro-scales will be evaluated, integrated and quantified in large-scale experiments. Since microbial interactions with the environment are governed by surface chemistry, SCELSE's approach also accommodates the merging of nano-technological tools.
Ecological theories that link natural processes at these different scales predict biofilm community behaviour in the face of environmental stresses.
SCELSE's Top-down/Bottom-up research model
SCELSE's research structure takes a 'Top-down/Bottom-up' approach to understand biofilm biology. The top-down (Meta-'omics & Systems Biology) and bottom-up (Microbial Biofilms) clusters are guided by the output of the other two clusters (Environmental Engineering and Public Health & Medical Biofilms) and, in turn, contribute post-analysis input into these clusters. This iterative approach revolves around comprehensive data collection and in-depth mechanistic analyses of microbial biofilm communities. The outcomes of these analyses are used to develop diagnostic and predictive tools for validation of the new biological understanding. New rounds of analyses are then undertaken using techniques and manipulations refined and improved upon from the previous round.
Such an approach enables an evermore detailed understanding of a biologically system. From this knowledge, powerful tools such as biomarkers are developed for monitoring and intervention, environmental management and sustainable solutions. Successive rounds of such highly refined analyses also leads to the development of new ecosystem theories, database formation and understanding of systems biology.
SCELSE's research model ensures all facets of biofilm research are rigorously investigated. Such comprehensive understanding is essential for converting biofilm research into practical applications. SCELSE is uniquely placed to develop the translational approaches that will deliver technological benefits and biofilm control applications, based on rapid advances made in life sciences research.
Biofilms: the basis of SCELSE research
Microbes are no longer viewed as free-living, single-celled organisms. It is now well understood that they reside in dynamically structured communities of multiple species embedded in a polymeric matrix, collectively known as a biofilm.
Biofilms are complex microbial communities that are associated with surfaces and are the oldest and most widespread mode of life. They have a distinctive architecture, often forming mushroom-shaped towers surrounded by fluid-filled channels that transfer nutrients, dissolved gasses, chemical signals and waste to and from the colony.
Biofilms can be made up of microbial cells of the same species, but are far more commonly comprised of multi-species consortia that cooperate to the advantage of member bacteria. For example, individual cells coordinate their behaviour to benefit the group, often showing altruism. This requires the production and detection of signal molecules to coordinate gene regulation and synchronise behaviour, a density-dependent process known as quorum sensing (QS). QS-based phenotypic expression takes advantage of the prevailing conditions to increase competitiveness, and therefore survival of the group.
Astonishingly, until recently these processes have eluded scientists and environmental engineers. A thorough understanding of biofilm processes is needed if we are to control and harness them to our advantage.