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 Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is to allocate new platform technology funds to support the emerging research field of synthetic biology. It is hoped that the grant of £5m, which is to be announced today in a speech by Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts, will facilitate the production and commercialisation of new applications within synthetic biology.
The Flowers Consortium, which consists of Imperial College London, King’s College London, and the Universities of Cambridge, Edinburgh and Newcastle, will use the new funds to build upon its previous research into synthetic biology. The EPSRC has already made substantial investments in this field, such as the £4.5m for Imperial College’s Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation (CsynBI).
"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," said Professor Paul Freemont, co-director of CsynBI.
The Consortium aims to create a UK infrastructure for synthetic biology. A project web server will be available to universities both domestically and internationally, and will enhance existing collaborations such as that with Stanford University in the United States. The collaboration is also working alongside industry to commercialise potential products such as biosensors for identifying arsenic in water and for earlier detection of urinary tract infections.
"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," said Dr Drew Endy from Stanford’s Bioengineering Department.
Synthetic biologists take inspiration from nature by redesigning and developing new biological systems for a variety of different purposes. This branch of research has applications in sectors such as chemicals, materials, biosensors, biofuels and healthcare. This emerging field of research could make significant contributions to the government’s agenda for growth, with the potential to help scientists to overcome major global challenges in the areas of energy, health and the environment.
SynBIS, the information system on which the platform technology will be based, is currently in Beta trials and should be made available in late-June. The system will host modelling tools such as BioCAD and will allow researchers to conduct high-level software design of biologically-inspired devices. These devices can then be assembled automatically by specialised pieces of equipment. The funds will also be used to implement professional registry of biological parts and devices via a robotic data-collection pipeline for characterisation.
"[The EPSRC] has substantial investments in synthetic biology, [and today] we are working with five universities in the Flowers Consortium to push the field further forward and this builds on our previous investment in the flagship EPSRC Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation at Imperial College, which we funded back in 2009," explained Professor David Delpy, Chief Executive Officer of the EPSRC. "Engineering leadership is critical to the UK’s future success in this area and we will continue to grow our investment so that the UK’s research base continues to be world-leading as this field develops."
In his address at the University of East Anglia, Minister 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."