GIFS’ engineering biology platform revolutionizing agri-food tech

Posted on February 15, 2022

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Canada is falling behind the world in engineering biology and that’s a big problem. Engineering biology has been critical for advances in genetic modification, allowing scientists to harness the power of biology to make modified and enhanced materials for the world’s problems, and is projected to impact the global economy by $2 – $4 billion in the next 10 – 20 years.

Canada needs to be a leader in this space. But, don’t worry. The Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS) is already on it.

“We will be a critical node in Canada’s emerging engineering biology network,” says Dr. Steve Webb, Executive Director and CEO of GIFS. More specifically, GIFS’ new Engineering Biology Agri-food Innovation Centre will equip Saskatchewan and Canada with this crucial technology to advance research and provide biological-based solutions in the Ag and Food sectors.

Webb, who is currently part of the National Engineering Biology Steering Committee, is ready for GIFS to seize this opportunity in Canada to not only catch up to other countries, but go beyond where those countries are with the application of the technology. “This is a real opportunity for us to be at the forefront of technology and technological innovation and capability. It's going to change everything we do,” says Webb.

GIFS’ engineering biology platform is currently being built right beside its sister platform the Omics and Precision Agriculture Laboratory (OPAL) in GIFS' new home at Innovation Place in Saskatoon. Its location is the perfect place to support both Saskatchewan’s and Canada’s tech sectors and help key players within them achieve their goals.

For example, Webb says, Protein Industries Canada (PIC) and the Saskatchewan Food Industry Development Centre (Food Centre) are two organizations doing innovative work where there is an opportunity for GIFS’ engineering biology platform to push their mandates even further. It can help propel the investments PIC has made into alternative proteins and help the Food Centre scale its products, aligning with the province’s growth plan of more value-added processing in Saskatchewan.

How will it do that exactly? It’s as easy as ABC says Webb.

Currently in most of Canada, researchers do things one at a time: run the test, get the data, learn from the results and repeat. With engineering biology, the entire cycle is automated (A is for automation!), allowing researchers to go through that cycle faster (B is for biological!) and therefore learn faster and ultimately innovate faster (C is for computational!). This keeps costs down, improves quality and allows operation at scale that previous methods did not.

The appetite for this technology in Canada is big, especially after GIFS was awarded $3.2 million from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI). The CFI funding was a signal to researchers in Saskatchewan and beyond that GIFS is ready to help them explore and test their ideas like developing canola varieties more resistant to climate change or plants that are more nutrient dense. In addition, GIFS received $3.2 million in combined multi-year funding from Innovation Saskatchewan and the Ministry of Agriculture for the engineering biology platform.

“We see lots of opportunities for our platform,” says Webb. “We're really excited about the opportunity to bring this capability to Canada and to Saskatchewan because it really complements our ecosystem.

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