Revolutionising the Future of Nutrition
From culturing bacteria to extracting lycopene crystals, Dr Chen Xixian takes great pride in bringing her bioengineering breakthroughs from lab to table.
A problem solver at heart, Dr Chen Xixian was determined to pursue a career in biotechnology after she received her PhD in metabolic engineering and enzymology almost seven years ago. Never one to turn down a good challenge, she relishes every opportunity in finding innovative solutions to complex questions.
“As a scientist, I am learning every day. It enables me to test my hypothesis and develop my own technology. I am excited by an innovative idea that solves a tough problem, and when I achieve success in my experiments,” says Dr Chen.
As a research scientist at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), Dr Chen’s role requires her to develop and apply advance genetic engineering tools to produce high-value ingredients. Her greater goal — owing to her key function in A*STAR’s Biotransformation Innovation Platform (BioTrans) research initiative — is to create sustainable bioprocesses to meet consumers’ inclination for natural ingredients.
Discovering What’s Next in Nutrition
One project that Dr Chen has been focusing on lately is developing sustainable and larger yields of high-quality compounds, such as lycopene found in fruits like tomatoes and watermelons. This is part of BioTrans’ partnership with local biotechnology start-up Fermatics, which licensed A*STAR’s strain engineering technology for commercialisation.
Lycopene, the compound that gives tomatoes their red colour, is an antioxidant and is known to promote heart health while reducing the risk of developing various types of cancer. Sounds amazing? Here’s the catch: these red compounds exist in extremely low concentration in the foods we eat. In fact, only up to 20 milligrams of lycopene can be produced from one kilogram of tomato cells. You’ll have to eat at least three tomatoes a day to enjoy those benefits, Dr Chen explains.
Dr Chen (centre) and her teammates with the extracted lycopene. (Photo credit: A*STAR)
BioTrans’ approach is to culture bacteria via a bioreactor to produce lycopene in a more sustainable and scalable manner. By grafting tomato enzymes onto microbial cells, Dr Chen and her team are able to extract 30 grams of lycopene crystals from one kilogram of microbial cells — equivalent to more than 1,000 times the amount of lycopene produced naturally! Producing lycopene in the lab also requires significantly less land and water than growing tomatoes via traditional farming methods.
Extracting the lycopene was not easy though, especially as there was no process established at that time. Due to the low solubility of lycopene, Dr Chen and her team had to use vast amounts of organic solvents for the extraction process. To boot, these extracted compounds have to be quickly protected from light and oxygen throughout the process too. “We stayed till midnight to purify the lycopene crystals. In the end, it was very rewarding to see the red lycopene crystals,” she says.
Ultimately, it’s all worth it as Dr Chen believes this new technology will be able to provide an alternative supply of lycopene at a competitive cost, and even broaden its range of beneficial applications, such as including it in nutritional supplements.
Making a Difference
Besides her passion for solving scientific problems, Dr Chen also finds inspiration when she works with industry partners and the larger scientific community. In 2020, BioTrans became a part of the Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation (SIFBI), which hosts cross-disciplinary teams with expertise extending beyond biotechnology, a move that has provided Dr Chen with more opportunities to collaborate and learn from other experts.
Over the course of her career at A*STAR, she has also had opportunities to hone her leadership qualities in managerial capacities, such as administrating her own research grants and training the next generation of scientists. Seeing her students become more independent and competent in their research fills her with an immense sense of pride too, Dr Chen adds.
What is perhaps the most fulfilling aspect of her job, however, is the knowledge that her work supports Singapore’s “30-by-30” food security goal — to produce 30% of its nutritional needs locally by 2030. “While we are increasing the local food output, we also need to consider nutritional values,” she shares.
“By providing a source of functional ingredients through our microbial technology, we can help strengthen the nutritional values of food products.”