Public Release: 

Funding will establish platform technology for emerging synthetic biology field

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council

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.


Contact details: EPSRC Press Office on 01793 444404 or

Notes to editors:

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK's main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. EPSRC invests around £800 million a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change. The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone's health, lifestyle and culture.

EPSRC works alongside other Research Councils with responsibility for other areas of research. The Research Councils work collectively on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK.

The Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation (CSynBI) was established in 2009 in partnership with the BIOS Centre through an EPSRC Science and Innovation award that aims to build new activity in areas of national strategic importance, with a particular focus on supporting new research leaders.

The Centre is part of Imperial College London's Institute for Systems and Synthetic Biology - a multidisciplinary, multi faculty institute focused on developing novel approaches to research in biology, medicine and engineering. The Centre is based in the Faculty of Engineering and works closely with the Departments of Bioengineering and Life Sciences in the emerging field of synthetic biology.

A major strategic aim of the Centre is to establish a robust engineering framework for the design and optimisation of new synthetic biology parts, devices and systems and to integrate this research with emerging ethical legal and societal issues.

Researchers from the BIOS Centre at King's College London form an integral part of CSynBI and are exploring the social, political, economic and ethical dimensions of synthetic biology. They are also addressing issues of public engagement and trust, as well as engaging with the central concerns of policy and regulation in this novel and rapidly developing area. an appropriate regulatory and policy regime.

SynthSys is a Centre for Synthetic and Systems Biology at the University of Edinburgh. The centre's focus is to pioneer genetic and chemical tools to manipulate the cell, technologies to quantify responses at the single-cell level, and mathematical models to both predict and control cellular behaviour.

SynthSys's experimental and theoretical researchers seek to deliver world-leading research in Synthetic and Systems Biology by combining theory and informatics with molecular biology to understand and re-design biochemical systems.

The centre integrates researchers from Innogen, the ESRC Centre for Social and Economic Research on Innovation in Genomics, to embed the principles of responsible innovation in translating our research into impact.

SynthSys, formerly the Centre for Systems Biology Edinburgh, was established as a Centre for Integrative Systems Biology in 2007 with an investment of £9M from the BBSRC and EPSRC.

Newcastle University is a centre of excellence for interdisciplinary computing science and bacterial cell biology, and has been active in systems and synthetic biology for more than a decade. The University's synthetic biology focus closely integrates expertise from across a wide variety of disciplines including computing science, engineering, mathematics and molecular biosciences.

A major strength is the inclusion of The Centre for Bacterial Cell Biology (CBCB), the world's first major research centre with a focus on fundamental bacterial cell processes.

Newcastle will play a key role in the project, leading the computational design and the development of industrially relevant bacterial strains.

Cambridge Synthetic Biology at the University of Cambridge, is an interdisciplinary consortium of laboratories established in 2005 with the aim to engage biologists, engineers, computer scientists, social scientists educators and artists to participate in the emerging world of Biological Design.

The Haseloff, Micklem and Ajioka labs leading Cambridge Synthetic Biology, are currently engaged in projects that include seminal work in developing synthetic biology standards and tools for plants and microbes, computational approaches for designing genetic circuits and practical solutions to healthcare.

Jim Haseloff's lab in the Dept. of Plant Sciences with support from the EPSRC, is focused on the engineering of plant morphogenesis, using microscopy, molecular genetic, computational and synthetic biology techniques. Advanced imaging techniques allow the visualisation of plant microachitecture, and the cellular interactions that underly plant morphogenesis. The lab is exploring new genetic circuits that will allow reprogramming of the distribution of natural cell types to remodel tissues or organs with specialised biosynthetic or storage functions. Plants, with their indeterminate and modular body plans, wide spectrum of biosynthetic activities, ease of genetically manipulation, and wide use as crop systems will underpin future sustainable technologies.

Gos Micklem, head of the Cambridge Computational Biology Institute, leads international projects funded by the NIH and the Wellcome Trust on data integration, where data from all the major model organisms can be "mined" through the InterMine platform. The Micklem computational group is now expanding this technology into synthetic biology with the development of SynBioMine. The power of generating collated and annotated data for specified biological functions will help realise the potential for incorporating natural biological diversity into engineered biological systems.

Jim Ajioka's lab based in the Dept. of Pathology with support from the Wellcome Trust, is directing synthetic biology into practical solutions for healthcare in impoverished regions with little infrastructure. Vast areas of South and Southeast Asia suffer from arsenic contaminated groundwater, where the distribution and contamination level of individual wells is unknown.

In collaboration with the Edinburgh group, the lab is taking research from previous projects, notably coloured pigment producing "E. chromi", and applying it to the construction of a whole-cell arsenic biosensor for use in the field.

Since 2005, Cambridge Synthetic Biology has established and maintained collaborations with leading synthetic biology laboratories, computer scientists, artists and designers including the Endy lab at Stanford, the Voigt lab at MIT, the Phillips group at Microsoft Research and Daisy Ginsberg and James King, whose rendition of "E. chromi" has been displayed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

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