The Singapore Centre on Environmental Life Sciences Engineering (SCELSE) is a first-of-its-kind research institution under the leadership of the Swedish-Australian professor Staffan Kjelleberg. SCELSE aims to be a world leading centre in microbial biofilm research, to harness the powers of microorganisms for environmental and water sustainability. Operational since 2011, it is Singapore’s 5th Research Centre of Excellence (RCE) with more than S$200 million in budget over 10 years. Uniquely, SCELSE is placed across Singapore’s two leading universities, hosted by Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in partnership with National University of Singapore (NUS).
Microbes the largest biomass
ScandAsia met with Prof. Kjelleberg to discuss SCELSE’s significance and decipher the centre’s cutting edge research in layman’s terms. Prof. Kjelleberg’s own research background is in environmental microbiology and he explains how the world of microbial biofilm communities stretches to all environments and affects everything connecting to life.
“Microorganisms, or microbes, are the largest biomass and activity centre on the planet. There are more and different kinds of them than anything else,” explained Prof. Kjelleberg. “They exist everywhere and affect each and every facet of our lives and the environment we live in, forming complex communities and organisations.”
It is essential to understand complex microbial communities and how they affect ecosystem and bioprocess functions especially considering their ubiquity, he explained. The approach taken by SCELSE merges the science of numerous fields in a contemporary approach to meeting the challenges of creating a sustainable environment, especially for urban centres. In doing so, the centre is forging the new discipline of environmental life sciences engineering (ELSE).
Historically, microbial communities have been understudied because of a lack of technological sophistication that would enable more than one (usually culturable) microorganism to be investigated at any time. “The vast majority of microbes are not readily grown in the laboratory, and so our view of microbes was somewhat skewed towards those we could isolate,” he said.
Living as biofilms
However, recent technological developments have advanced the field significantly by enabling scientists to characterise microbes in a community, as well as the functions they perform, without the need to culture. This leap forward was enabled by two major changes, both linked to new powerful technologies and the advances in analytical bioinformatics.
Firstly, following the realisation that microbes live as biofilms, there was a shift in research interests from considering single cells and individual species to investigating complex microbial consortia. We now know that the biofilm lifestyle predominates and the associated communal activities are central to all living processes and hence environmental sustainability.
Secondly, the ability to sequence uncultured microorganisms and subsequent next-generation sequencing technologies arrived.
“Information obtained from these approaches has revealed whole new universes of microorganisms – the diversity of which has far exceeded our expectations,” Prof. Kjelleberg said.
To use an example, SCELSE has identified more than 20000 microbial species in a used water treatment system biofilm floc community, but less than 1% of these are known to science.
“We can now sequence a sample and identify who is present in a complex system. As you can imagine, it’s a big challenge to put that together mathematically and then ask the right questions to derive meaning to all that data!” said Prof. Kjelleberg.
In addition to being everywhere, biofilms also share a commonality in the way their members are organised and interact, regardless of the diverse environments they inhabit. “Understanding the fundamentals of this commonality will have a follow-on effect in many applications,” Prof. Kjelleberg said.
Pushing the frontiers
SCELSE is exploring the hidden powers of the biofilm mode of life and harnessing biofilm activities for novel environmental engineering. Biofilms, their manipulation and control can generate profound, long-term environmental and economic benefits, he said.
“By pushing the frontiers of ELSE, we can achieve a deeper understanding of bacterial interactions in many environments,” Prof. Kjelleberg said.
Biofilm research projects (both fundamental and applied) currently undertaken at SCELSE include used water treatment, the ecology of waterways, public health and medical biofilms and other critical ELSE processes in Singapore’s urban ecosystem.
The research SCELSE conducts is highly interdisciplinary, involving numerous local and international collaborations with universities and industry, traversing the fields of microbiology, biology, physics, chemistry, medicine and biotechnology. This approach is essential to unravelling biofilm intricacies and reflects the way modern research is increasingly conducted.
Modern challenges to life-supporting environment
The main challenges facing humankind include securing the availability of clean water and maintaining a sustainable environment. 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. As such, any long-term approaches to sustainable living must accommodate an understanding and utilisation of biofilms.
“This approach is important for urban centres such as Singapore, as they prepare for future resource management and urban planning,” said Prof. Kjelleberg.
Microbial biofilms hold the key to many processes essential to urban living. For example, the collective metabolisms of microbial communities can treat wastewater for re-use, convert and remove toxic contaminants from waterways, recycle nutrients in natural ecosystems and affect the air we breathe. Alternatively, they are also implicated in negative processes such as chronic disease, contamination during food handling, slime build-up in water and industrial pipes, and corrosion of industrial surfaces.
“The prevalence of biofilms in all aspects of our lives dictates the need to better understand their biology if they are to be harnessed and controlled in natural and engineered settings,” Prof. Kjelleberg said.
Life sciences transition
The investment in SCELSE made by the Singapore government has provided the RCE with a clear mandate to incorporate ELSE into the Singapore research landscape.
“As an autonomous RCE, SCELSE is linking Singapore’s universities, broader research infrastructure, and governmental bodies to draw upon broad ranging capacities and expertise in a coordinated and meaningful way.”
“We are building excellence over a ten-year period in an area Singapore sought to pursue.”
Prior to establishing SCELSE, Prof. Kjelleberg was involved in forming a smaller centre in Singapore involved in environmental microbiology research, which reflected a general push towards biotech-related microbiology. Singapore has been extraordinarily strong for a long time in biomedical research, but there was a gap in life sciences research in the non-biomedical arena,” Prof. Kjelleberg said, explaining the genesis of SCELSE.
World leaders in their respective fields were recruited to head SCELSE’s interactive research clusters of Environmental Engineering, Meta-‘omics & Systems Biology, Microbial Biofilms, and Public Health & Medical Biofilms.
“These research clusters do not operate in isolation, but rather collaborate in an iterative manner to approach a research question from all angles and obtain comprehensive outputs, both fundamental and applied,” he said.
“Bringing together this cohort of internationally acknowledged research directors who are recognised for their excellence in science has also precipitated the formation of a significant life sciences precinct at NTU, which is a remarkable development for a university that primarily focused on engineering.”
Singapore’s RCE concept
Singapore has established RCEs to catalyse the development of local universities into research-intensive institutions with international standing, and to help establish Singapore as a leading centre for world-class research and development by attracting top-level talent from Singapore and abroad. The establishment of Singapore’s RCEs will ensure research breakthroughs and innovative technologies that will make the country a hotbed for innovation.
“Singapore has made a hefty investment in research. To be given a budget of this magnitude is essentially unheard of. I cannot think of any country where there is funding at this scale to form a centre of any particular kind,” Prof. Kjelleberg said.
“I think it all hangs together with Singapore’s future development. If you don’t have natural resources then you have to be clever, and foster technology – to be the best at something that is self-generated.
“This is reflected in the real support Singapore has provided for research and development, including the establishment of RCEs.”
“I think microbiology is moving really fast and many things have changed our way of viewing microbes, so I hope I’ll be part of the next phase of understanding biofilm biology. As SCELSE director overseeing the research centre, it is a privilege to have the opportunity and funding to gather such talented researchers under the one roof, and pioneer the new discipline of ELSE.
“It is an exciting time. How often does this kind of opportunity come around?!”