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New research programmes in Singapore to address challenges in precision agriculture, antimicrobial resistance and cyber-physical systems

Photo credit: National Climate Change Secretariat, Prime Minister’s Office, Singapore

The Campus for Research Excellence And Technological Enterprise (CREATE) in Singapore commemorated its 10-year milestone with new initiatives to achieve greater impact from Singapore’s research partnerships with world-renowned universities.

CREATE was set up by the National Research Foundation (NRF) in 2007 to attract highly-regarded R&D institutions from all over the world to set up research centres in Singapore, to partner Singapore universities and research institutions to collaboratively conduct research in Singapore. Today, CREATE supports the work of more than 400 research staff from overseas partner institutions and close to 300 graduate students from the National University of Singapore (NUS), the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), and the Singapore Management University (SMU).

They work under the guidance of 170 Principal Investigators from overseas partner institutions and 240 academics from Singapore universities and research institutions. In total, close to 1,100 researchers from more than 40 countries are collaborating on projects at CREATE. To date, research at CREATE has produced around 540 patent applications, 336 invention disclosures and 15 spin-off companies.

The new efforts include the formation of a CREATE Governing Council to chart the overall strategy of the campus in terms of research directions and collaborative efforts. The council will deepen engagements between Singapore universities and the 2/4 overseas partner institutions in CREATE by tapping synergies between multiple parties to achieve high impact research.

The CREATE governing council will be chaired by Mr. Peter Ho, Chairman of the Urban Redevelopment Authority and Senior Advisor to the Centre for Strategic Futures. It will comprise presidents from partner universities in CREATE and members from government and academia.

Three new programmes have been announced in precision agriculture, antimicrobial resistance and cyber-physical systems to create globally-relevant technologies that will also address the challenges of Singapore.

Precision agriculture

A Disruptive and Sustainable Technologies for Agricultural Precision (DiSTAP) Interdisciplinary Research Group will be formed by the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), in partnerships with Singapore universities and research institutions.

Commencing in January 2018 for an initial period of five years, DiSTAP seeks to develop nanosensor-based detection technologies to be applied in precision agriculture for the discovery, optimisation and translation of plant biosynthetic pathways for improved yields in production.

In the Singapore context, DiSTAP could contribute solutions to the challenges of urban food and nutrient production. The programme seeks to develop technologies for highly resource-efficient urban farming and generate economic value in the form of exportable technologies in innovative urban farming. While the nano sensors and optical technologies will be initially deployed for use in urban farming of leafy green vegetables, they should have broad applicability in precision agriculture.

DiSTAP will be co-led by Professor Michael Strano from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Professor Chua Nam Hai from Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory (TLL). The research team will also include Principal Investigators from NUS and NTU.

Researchers will also collaborate with Greenphyto, a local developer of an automated vertical farming system, to ensure that Singapore small and medium companies could benefit from new technologies developed in the programme.

Professor Michael Strano, Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering, MIT, said, “The Disruptive and Sustainable Technologies for Agricultural Precision (DiSTAP) will utilise new techniques developed at MIT to help world-class Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory (TLL) produce the next generation of agricultural products. Using powerful nanosensor technology, we will tap and measure biochemical signaling pathways within the plant not possible until now. The TLL is well-positioned to capitalise on these advances. DiSTAP will engineer new plants to solve longstanding problems in agriculture and also translate these advances to state-of-the-art biomanufacturing technologies. The goal is to make the TLL and Singapore the technological hub for a new generation of agricultural research methods.”

Professor Chua Nam Hai, Deputy Chairman, TLL, said: “Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory (TLL) focuses on the development of innovative solutions to address realworld needs with the ultimate aim of improving lives and benefitting the society. By leveraging TLL’s plant biology expertise, we hope to contribute to the production of higher yielding plants and new systems that enable high-density urban farming. We are pleased to partake in this joint effort with these outstanding research and industry 3/4 partners and look forward to the sustainable production of plant products for enhancing food sustainability in Singapore.”

Overcoming Antimicrobial Drug Resistance

An Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) Interdisciplinary Research Group will be formed by SMART, in partnerships with Singapore universities and research institutions.

Also commencing in January 2018 for an initial period of five years, it seeks to identify new antimicrobial drug resistance mechanisms, with the goal of developing new therapeutics diagnostics and drug delivery technologies and approaches, such as exploiting host immunity to kill resistant microbes.

Drug-resistant pathogens as well as emerging pathogens with the potential to become drug resistant represent a real threat to the public health and national security of Singapore. A significant 35-50% of bacterial infections in Singapore hospitals are now resistant to antibiotics. The Singapore Government recently launched a National Strategic Action Plan on Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR).

The AMR programme will apply novel technologies to seek to understand the biological mechanisms of drug resistance in microbes that are relevant to Singapore. The team will then exploit these mechanisms to create new approaches to identify and treat drug-resistant bacteria, parasites and viruses.

 The AMR programme will be co-led by Professor Peter Dedon from MIT and Professor Peter Preiser from NTU. The research team will also include Principal Investigators from NTU, NUS, Duke-NUS, NTU/Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine and the Singapore General Hospital (SGH).

Professor Peter Dedon, Underwood-Prescott Professor in Biological Engineering, MIT, said: “It is a privilege to work with such a talented team of Singaporean and MIT researchers in the AMR research group. This group brings exciting new technologies to bear on solving the most challenging problems posed by antimicrobial drug resistance in Singapore and around the world. We are all eager to get moving!”

Professor Peter Preiser, Chair, School of Biological Sciences, NTU, said: “I am very excited about the unique opportunity the AMR research group offers to Singaporean and MIT researchers to work together to have a lasting impact on solving the global problem of antimicrobial drug resistance.”

Cyber-Physical Systems

A Trustworthy and Secure Cyber-Plexus (TSCP) research programme will be formed to examine the reliability and security of cyber-physical systems in existing critical infrastructure.

The research team is led by Professor David Nicol from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), and it comprises investigators from SUTD and UIUC. The programme will address prevailing issues in trust and security of cyber-physical systems and improve the robustness of critical cyber infrastructure in Singapore. Research under the programme commenced in September 2017, for an initial period of five years.

Cyber-physical systems integrate computational, networking, and physical processes. Existing cybersecurity solutions for cyber-physical systems cannot ensure that the components within the systems behave as designed. 

The TSCP research programme will develop an overlay architecture which can be integrated with cyber-physical systems in existing infrastructures, to make them more trustworthy, reliable and secure.

Technologies for deep authentication, command validation, detection of intrusion and interdiction will be developed to prevent disruptions and to rapidly restore cyber operations following a disruption. The programme will first focus on developing technology prototypes for energy systems. The technologies developed could then be applied in other sectors including transportation and advanced manufacturing systems.

The programme will also develop a pipeline of highly-trained researchers who specialise in safeguarding the security of cyber-physical systems. It will work closely with industry players to create a commercial pathway for the adoption of its technology.

Professor David Nicol, Franklin W. Woeltge Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Director, Information Trust Institute, UIUC, said: “We are excited for the opportunity of working with Singapore’s universities and industries to address this key challenge of securing the cyber component of critical infrastructures. As a result of Singapore’s strong culture of partnership and cooperation among government, universities, and industry, we have a unique opportunity to tackle this problem in an operational context. We are confident that what we learn and develop here will have application in other modern nations, and are grateful to NRF for bringing us into the CREATE community.”

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