The Bio21 Institute

Article by Florienne Loder, Communications and Engagement Advisor at Bio21 Molecular Science and Biotechnology Institute. 

The Bio21 Molecular Science and Biotechnology Institute, or ‘Bio21’ for short, has a powerful founding vision, which is inherent in its name: a molecular science and biotechnology institute. It is a community of brilliant scientists, equipped with the most cutting-edge instrumentation, working together to improve human health and the environment through innovation in biotechnology and molecular sciences, driven by multidisciplinary research and dynamic interactions with industry.

In 2017 Professor Michael Parker took up the challenge as the new Director of leading the Institute into an exciting future, located in one of the great biomedical precincts in the world.

Professor Parker took the opportunity to reflect on what kind of Institute Bio21 is; its purpose and direction:

“Bio21 is not the ‘cancer’ centre, the ‘brain’, ‘infectious diseases’ or ‘sustainability’ institute; yet individual groups do conduct research in all these fields. From understanding how malaria invades the body, to what makes mozzarella cheese stretchy, or how organisms can adapt to climate change – the common denominator is the molecular science approach we all use to seek knowledge and solutions to problems in health and disease, environment and agriculture and more generally the biological sciences. We are the ‘molecular sciences’ institute!” says Michael Parker.

Bio21 is uniquely positioned with large, state-of-the-art technology to delve deeply into the structure and nature of molecules, from small molecules, to peptides, proteins, nucleic acids and viruses.

Collaboration is key

The Bio21 Institute was built with collaboration in mind. The architects built bridges across the atrium with break-out spaces to meet and chat. The Institute is home to groups across the three STEMM faculties of the University of Melbourne (Science; Medicine Dentistry and Health Sciences and the Melbourne School of Engineering). The Bio21 community also includes industry members, CSL Ltd, Prana Biotech Ltd, Circa Group and more recently, Rhythm Biosciences and SYNthesis Research & Med Chem.

One strategy that has served Bio21 researchers well is to truly seek to work collaboratively with colleagues within and across disciplines, in academia and industry.

Bio21’s success is reflected in a Nature Index survey of leading research institutions in Australia, where the Bio21 Institute figures prominently (see BioMedVic Nature Index infographic).

There are numerous examples within the Institute of collaboration that has led to truly innovative commercialisation successes, such as: Spencer William’s success with Fibrotech; Clarity Pharmaceuticals commercialisation of radiopharmaceuticals; Barnham and Donnelly labs commercialisation and licencing of a motor neurone disease drug with Collaborative Medicinal Development Pty Ltd (CMD); and collaborative work between Takeda Pharmaceuticals and the Tilley lab to show that proteasome-inhibiting cancer drugs can be repurposed to be effective against malaria. These great stories highlight the biotechnology aspirations of Bio21.

At the end of 2018, Bio21 celebrated the opening of the Nancy Millis building and Margaret Sheil Mass Spectrometry Laboratories. It is founded on collaboration between CSL and the University of Melbourne and now houses CSL research groups as well as Platform Technology facilities from the University of Melbourne.

Nancy Millis Building

 Bio21’s collaborations, span the Melbourne Biomedical Precinct and beyond, contributing to our success as a world class molecular science and biotechnology Institute.

Industry supported and embedded in the Institute

Bio21 is co-located with industry tenants. In 2018, the Bio21 Institute welcomed Rhythm Biosciences (diagnostics), and SYNthesis med chem (medical chemistry), two biotechnology companies, that moved into the Bio21 Business Incubator building (building 404). They join CSL (biological therapeutics), Circa Group (chemistry of bio-derived products) and Prana Biotech (medicinal chemistry applied to neurodegenerative diseases) as industry research groups who are part of the Bio21 community.

From the beginning, it has been one of Bio21’s goals to support translation and commercialisation of research and to provide a supportive ‘incubator’ space for industry research, whether they be start-ups or more well established companies.

Bio21 is an attractive location for industry groups for many reasons: access to our platform technology facilities, being embedded in a thriving academic research institute and in close proximity to other University of Melbourne institutes and faculties, medical research institutes and hospitals in the Melbourne Biomedical Precinct in Parkville. But, it is often the intangible factors such as a collegial, collaborative and welcoming research culture that then leads to the flourishing of these groups in the Institute, as well as the growth of opportunities for all.

Platforms Technology Facilities supporting molecular science

The Bio21 research environment consists of well-resourced platform technology facilities that house powerful research instruments.

Some of our facilities represent the largest of their kind in Australia, with cutting edge instruments and led by highly regarded national experts in their respective technologies. Much of the instrumentation has been supported through government grants, such as the ARC LIEF grants. Bio21 has been likened to Dr Who’s ‘Tardis’; small on the outside but full of amazing technology inside.

Malcolm McConville, Associate Director Platform Infrastructure says: “The co-localisation of key technology platforms at Bio21 is opening up new opportunities for researchers, encouraging them to move beyond their comfort zone. For example, the co-localisation of the proteomics, metabolomics and lipidomics mass spectrometry facilities in the new Nancy Millis building, together with recent developments in the NMR and cryo-EM platforms allows researchers to characterise their systems, from metabolites to proteins and genotype/phenotype in unprecedented detail. Co-localisation is also bringing together expertise in IT, data handling and computational biology that underpin innovation and development across of these platforms.“

The Margaret Sheil laboratories in the Nancy Millis building house the Melbourne Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics platform and Metabolomics Australia platform, with a total of over 30 mass spectrometers.

Melbourne Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics

Melbourne Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics, with its fleet of eight mass spectrometers and seven HPLC instruments, as well as sample preparation instruments makes it possible to conduct proteomic, lipidomic and metabolomics analyses of samples, as a powerful way to identify biomarkers of diseases, as well as measure the impact of potential therapeutic candidates. A recent addition to the laboratories, through a collaboration with the Doherty Institute, is an ICP-mass spectrometer that can identify metal ions at very low concentrations in biological samples.

Metabolomics Australia

The Metabolomics Australia facility, also housed in the Margaret Sheil laboratories at Bio21, comprises the combination of high-throughput analytical technologies for the detection and quantification of metabolites in biological systems with the application of sophisticated bioinformatic tools for data mining and analysis. The most commonly used platforms for the detection and measurement of metabolites involves the use of gas chromatography, liquid chromatography, or capillary electrophoresis coupled with mass spectrometry. These analyses can be very powerful for biomedical and environmental research.

Melbourne Magnetic Resonance

The Melbourne Magnetic Resonance platform is home to nine magnetic resonance spectrometers, with a tenth one on the way for fragment-screening purposes. This suite of instruments includes 400, 500, 600, 700 and 800 MHz magnetic resonance spectrometers and a DNP solid-state dynamic nuclear polarization-enhanced NMR system to make increasingly sensitive measurements of samples from small molecules through to large proteins, in solution, but also as solids in more physiological conditions.

Melbourne Advanced Microscopy

The Melbourne Advanced Microscopy platform is bursting at the seams with high end electron microscopes. It is housing four TEMs, amongst which 3 cryo TEMs. It is also equipped with 2 SEMs and a dual beam microscope. The ThermoFisher FEI Talos Artica cryo EM has already led to a number of atomic resolution protein structures despite only being commissioned a year ago. Bio21 looks forward to new cutting edge technology in 2020 with the arrival of a 300 keV cryo EM and cryo FIB instrument for tomography allowing imaging of structures in their native environment. The Bio21 Institute also has several high end optical microscopes with confocal microscopes and super resolution systems as well as sample preparation equipment as part of the University of Melbourne’s Biological Optical Microscopy Platform (BOMP). A new facility will be built to house the electron microscopes and will provide much needed space and the opportunity for further expansion.

Melbourne Protein Characterisation

Bio21’s Melbourne Protein Characterisation (MPC), which is currently being established, will be a key resource within Bio21 for studying protein function and interactions as well as supporting the other platforms through the production of well characterised proteins for further analysis. The platform which is nearing completion in April, will be comprised of three facilities, to support protein discovery research: 1. Protein Production, 2. Protein Characterisation and Interaction and 3. X-ray diffraction. Protein Production will focus on insect and mammalian cell protein expression and is so far equipped with a Biostat twin control tower with rocker and cross-flow system. The Protein Characterisation and Interaction facility contains analytical ultracentrifuges, fluorescence spectrophotometers, UV-Vis absorbance spectrophotometers, isothermal titration calorimeters, circular dichroism spectrometers, dynamic light scattering zetasizer, biolayer interferometer, microscale thermophoresis, and differential scanning calorimeter. The facility will soon be complemented by Biacore surface plasmon resonance with funds from the recent successful ACRF grant. The X-ray Diffraction lab has been fitted out with a Rigaku Synergy-S X-ray diffractometer for both protein and small molecule studies and a PX Scanner. A suite of protein crystallisation robots will be added over the next year.

Systems and Computational Biology Platform
The major Bio21 platforms are supported by the Bio21 Systems and Computational Biology Platform and the Melbourne (Bio21) Specialist Store. The former has recently set up “Bio21 cluster 1”, a high performance cpu cluster with a total of 340 cpu core to support our platforms and researchers at Bio21.

Bio21 is growing

The ‘Bio21 precinct’ is growing its facilities.

With the ‘Stage 2C’ development to house CryoEM microscopes in the former Veterinary Research Institute and the newly established Melbourne Protein Characterisation platform, Bio21 is growing our already significant molecular science instrumentation capacity.

The Bio21 Institute is a wonderful environment to undertake molecular science research, equipped with a suite of platform technology facilities. It is however, the combination of these complementary technologies: for example, metabolomics using Magnetic Resonance and Mass Spectrometry; X-ray crystallography in combination with CryoEM and computational biology that often give us that extra insight, resolution, detail and data that allow us to solve the missing pieces in our respective puzzles.

Complementing each other the instruments housed in Bio21’s platform facilities, are an incredible resource to the biomedical scientific community within the Melbourne Biomedical Precinct.