News Details | 14-Sep-2011

NTU opens $120 million Research Centre of Excellence to harness powers of micro-organisms for environmental and water sustainability

Innovative ways to process wastewater efficiently and trapping greenhouse gases are just two examples of the many practical benefits which environmental research can bring.

Such focused research will be conducted at the Singapore Centre on Environmental Life Sciences Engineering (SCELSE), which aims to achieve innovative solutions through the study of microbial biofilms – complex communities made up of micro-organisms that are the central mode of life on our planet, essential for all life support processes on earth and the sustainability of our environment.

The centre is led and hosted by Nanyang Technological University (NTU), in partnership with the National University of Singapore (NUS). SCELSE is co-funded by the National Research Foundation and the Ministry of Education over the next 10 years under the Research Centres of Excellence (RCE) Programme.

By understanding how bacteria interact with each other in these communities, scientists aim to harness them and control their activities for the benefit of our urban environment and our well-being through innovative life sciences based engineering.

Environmental engineering solutions which are critical to solve the main challenges facing mankind, such as a sustainable environment and the availability of clean water, can at the same time bring significant economic benefits for Singapore and beyond. In Asia alone, the water market is expected to grow to S$600 billion by 2015.

At SCELSE’s official opening ceremony today, Guest of Honour, Ms Grace Fu, Senior Minister of State, Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources, said that the research which SCELSE will be conducting is timely. Cities around the world are confronted with increasingly complex challenges related to growing urban populations, providing a clean water supply and proper sanitation, and the provision of high quality environmental services.

“Singapore, in particular, is a small city-state with limited natural resources. It is therefore critical for us to carefully manage our water resources, as well as to continue to develop in an environmentally sustainable manner,” she said.

“The science and technology that SCELSE promises can meet these complex challenges that a modern society like Singapore faces today. By delivering an advanced understanding of our planet’s key microbial systems, SCELSE’s work will enable greater engineering control of the biological processes encountered in the provision of environment and water services.”

NTU Deputy President, Professor Freddy Boey said, “This is a proud moment for NTU and a landmark in the university’s history, as this will be the first ever centre in Singapore focused on research in the emerging field of environmental life sciences engineering. SCELSE is a blueprint to solve the very complex challenges that Singapore and the world will face in the years to come.”

SCELSE boasts a world class research group helmed by the foremost authorities and pioneers in environmental life sciences engineering. The centre is led by Director Professor Staffan Kjelleberg and Deputy Director Professor Cohen Yehuda, both top experts in this field.

Leading the three research clusters are also foremost authorities in their own domains. Professor Stefan Wuertz is a world leader in the microbial communities in engineered treatment systems and the present editor of Water Research, the top-ranked journal in the field of water resources. Professor Stephan Schuster is a world-famous molecular biologist who had sequenced a mammoth genome using DNA material found in Siberia’s permafrost. Professor Michael Givskov is a pioneer in biofilm model systems and an authority on biofilm biology.

SCELSE also has world-leading scientists on its scientific advisory board, such as Dr J. Craig Venter, most famous for being one of the first to sequence the human genome and for leading the team which created “artificial life” – the first living cells with a synthetic genome. 

Professor Kjelleberg said, “SCELSE merges two traditionally separate disciplines: life sciences and engineering. The resulting new discipline – environmental life sciences engineering – profoundly changes the landscape of research and education.

“The new knowledge gained from our studies benefit not just the life sciences industry, but also other sectors, such as civil engineering and healthcare, to solve real world challenges which have been traditionally hard to solve. In turn, we can educate and train our future scientists and engineers in these revolutionary methods.”

Prof Boey added that with SCELSE located at NTU, collaboration in research and teaching are made much easier. NTU faculty such as Prof Daniela Rhodes, from MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, and Assoc Prof Konstantin Pervushin who was from ETH Zurich, will be collaborating with SCELSE’s scientists. In turn, SCELSE researchers such as Prof Kjelleberg, Prof Yehuda Cohen, Prof Stephan Schuster and Prof Michael Givskov will also teach at NTU’s School of Biological Sciences.

“Locating SCELSE at NTU will further boost our research in environmental engineering as well as in life sciences, especially since we will have a new medical school in 2013,” said Prof Boey.

SCELSE announced at its opening that it has already embarked on two flagship programmes in partnership with PUB, Singapore’s national water agency.

The first involves the Ulu Pandan water reclamation plant, where SCELSE has started a comprehensive analysis of the complex microbial communities that treat water at the plant. By knowing exactly what all of those organisms do and how they function together, the reclamation process can be optimised to be faster, more efficient and to use less energy.

The second is to study urban waterways, in which SCELSE has adopted the Ulu Pandan Catchment Areas to study the role of microbial processes in the recycling of surface water and for controlling harmful microorganisms in our waters. The findings will help to provide fundamental knowledge useful for reshaping of waterways by the combination of hard and soft engineering approaches.

Ms Fu, also added that SCELSE’s collaboration with PUB is “a good first step” and more of such collaborations with the public sector and industrial partners is encouraged.

“With similar collaborations with industrial partners, SCELSE can provide the competitive edge to Singapore’s companies in clean technology, environmental management and pharmaceutical drug development, and ultimately contribute towards enhancing Singapore’s job market and economic development,” she said.

SCELSE is NTU’s second Research Centre of Excellence, with the first being the Earth Observatory of Singapore (EOS), devoted to studying earth’s natural disasters, which was opened in 2009.

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Media contact:

Lester Kok
Assistant Manager
Corporate Communications Office
Nanyang Technological University
Tel: 6790 6804

About Nanyang Technological University

A research-intensive public university, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) has 33,500 undergraduate and postgraduate students in the colleges of Engineering, Business, Science, and Humanities, Arts, & Social Sciences.  In 2013, NTU will enrol the first batch of students at its new medical school, the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine, which is set up jointly with Imperial College London.

NTU is also home to four world-class autonomous institutes – the National Institute of Education, S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Earth Observatory of Singapore, and Singapore Centre on Environmental Life Sciences Engineering – and various leading research centres such as the Nanyang Environment & Water Research Institute (NEWRI) and Energy Research Institute @ NTU (ERI@N).

A fast-growing university with an international outlook, NTU is putting its global stamp on Five Peaks of Excellence: Sustainable Earth, Future Healthcare, New Media, New Silk Road, and Innovation Asia.

NTU has a satellite campus in Singapore’s science and tech hub, one-north, and is setting up a campus in Novena, Singapore’s medical district.

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