The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) will help the UK's world-leading researchers in synthetic biology to establish platform technology in the emerging field with a new grant of almost £5 million. Platform technology is the crucial next step necessary for applications to be produced and commercialised.
Announcing the grant later today in a major speech at the University of East Anglia, Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts will say: "Synthetic biology could provide solutions to many of humanity's most pressing issues and at the same time presents significant growth opportunities. This investment will lay the groundwork for the commercialisation of research, ensuring academics and industry can realise the full potential of this exciting area of science."
The Flowers Consortium of five universities, Imperial College London, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Newcastle and King's College London, carries out research into synthetic biology in the UK. The Consortium builds on earlier EPSRC investments such as the £4.5 million for the Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation (CsynBI) at Imperial which is co-directed by Professor Richard Kitney and Professor Paul Freemont.
Synthetic biology aims to design and engineer novel biologically based parts, devices and systems, and redesign existing natural biological systems for useful purposes. It is seen as affecting a wide range of industrial sectors including chemicals, materials, biosensors, biofuels and healthcare.
The platform technology will be based on an information system - SynBIS - which uses a web-based environment. SynBIS is currently in Beta trials and is expected to be available by the end of June. SynBIS will host BioCAD and modelling tools for the field. This opens up the possibility of undertaking high level software design of bioparts and devices which can be assembled using laboratory robots and other automatic methods.
The grant will also be used to establish a professional registry of biological parts and devices using a robotic data-collection pipeline for characterisation. The richer data that can be obtained will lead to improved mathematical modelling and in turn more predictable and reliable design and construction of the parts.
Professor Kitney said: "The new grant will build on the work of CsynBI and the other universities in the Flowers Consortium to create important new resources for the academic and industrial community in synthetic biology."
Professor Freemont said: "The establishment of the Flowers Consortium now provides a critical mass of researchers who are developing innovative open access technology platforms to accelerate the growth of synthetic biology research in the UK."
Another goal of the Consortium is to use funding to create a UK infrastructure for synthetic biology which will be widely available via a project web server that can be shared by universities throughout the UK and beyond, further enhancing UK and international collaborations such as the one with Stanford University.
Drew Endy of Stanford's Bioengineering department says: "I am grateful to be working with the EPSRC Centre of Science and Innovation in Synthetic Biology at Imperial College in partnership with other leading UK universities. This strategic UK investment in synthetic biology will strengthen key UK-US partnerships and also global research networks in ways that benefit all people and the planet."
The Consortium is currently working on a number of applications and is engaging with industry to commercialise potential products. Two of these are biosensors for testing arsenic in water and for the earlier detection of urinary tract infections.
Dr Kedar Pandya, EPSRC Engineering Theme Leader, said: "Engineering research and leadership is critical to the further development of the UK's synthetic biology sector. Engineering technology provides the necessary product standardisation, robustness and design. We will continue to grow the investment we make in this area so that the UK's research base continues to be world-leading."
The emerging technology has the potential to make a major contribution to the government's growth agenda, creating wealth and employment. In tandem with other fields of science, synthetic biology can play a significant part in addressing some of the key challenges that the world faces in the areas of energy, health and the environment.