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Tom Ellis | Imperial College, London

Rationally engineering biology to improve life

The Tom Ellis Lab at Imperial College is part of the world’s largest synthetic biology project, an international collaboration to redesign, rewrite and assemble a synthetic version of the yeast genome to create Yeast 2.0.

“Imagine a future where microbreweries from the UK to Africa to outer space could be reprogrammed,” says Tom, “with DNA printers attached to them so you could email them the sequences to produce medicines that are needed, when and where they’re needed.”

Tom Ellis Lecture theatre 4
“Biotechnology YES gives you chance to come up with and plot an idea, then pitch it.” 

Creating structures and foundations

“The beauty of synthetic biology is that the DNA designs go into machines (cells) that are self-replicating and we can get product from them,” says Tom. “We’re very adept with yeast as an organism because of thousands of years of baking and brewing.”

Tom oversees PhD and post-doc projects, manages collaborations with over 20 universities worldwide, works on joint projects with industry, presents at conferences and symposia – including the World Economic Forum in 2015 – and also teaches. His lab exemplifies entrepreneurial, interdisciplinary scientific research.

After a Masters in Biochemistry from Oxford and a PhD in molecular biology at Cambridge, Tom worked in a biotech firm for two years then went to Boston University for a post-doc before returning to Cambridge, where he was when he took part in Biotechnology YES in 2009.

Now come up with a crazy thing

“Biotechnology YES gives you chance to come up with and plot an idea, then pitch it,” says Tom. “Most of the time in science people are doing their project and don’t get the opportunity to ask ‘What if?’.” He enjoyed the opportunity to break from research and explore how an idea might be commercialised.

In 2010, Tom joined Imperial College, setting up and securing funding for his own synthetic biology research group. “We’re interested in building foundational tools to design a genome from scratch.” He also teaches his own students to value putting ideas together and doing innovation.

“What’s scary is that almost from age 18 onwards you just learn and no one says ‘now come up with a crazy thing’. That applied creativity is useful even if you’re continuing in academic research.”

Top impacts

Foundational research
Members of Tom’s lab create synthetic yeast chromosome XI (‘Yeast 2.0’), quantify cloning limits, work out new DNA assembly methods and strategies, tackle thermostability, engineer advanced materials from bacteria, and build modular regulation systems for yeast that enable complex logic circuits such as memory systems and pattern formation programs.

Redesigning life itself
There is no project more ambitious than rewriting how living organisms develop and multiply. Synthetic biology applies engineering concepts and methods to improve the speed, scale and precision with which we can engineer these biological systems.

Materials with new properties
If we remix five or six genes from across diverse organisms in nature, we can get genes to make yeast turn sugar not into alcohol but into penicillin, for instance. When you go up to dozens of genes from across nature, the possibilities become enormous.


More information

Visit Tom Ellis Laboratory

Young Entrepreneurs Scheme

  • Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship
  • Nottingham University Business School
  • Jubilee Campus
  • Nottingham, NG8 1BB