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UK Establishes Three New Synthetic Biology Research Centres

Published: Friday, January 31, 2014
Last Updated: Monday, February 03, 2014
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Bristol, Nottingham and a Cambridge/Norwich partnership will be UK centres for synthetic biology.

Three new multidisciplinary research centres in synthetic biology will be established in Bristol, Nottingham and through a Cambridge/Norwich partnership, thanks to funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

The £40M+ investment will be formally announced by Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts tonight at a BBSRC event in London to mark the achievements and impact of UK bioscience over the last 20 years.

The BBSRC/EPSRC Synthetic Biology Research Centres will receive funding over five years to boost national synthetic biology research capacity and ensure that there is diverse expertise to stimulate innovation in this area. The centres will: offer a strong collaborative culture; provide essential state-of-the-art equipment, facilities, trained researchers and technical staff; drive advancement in modern synthetic biology research; and develop new technologies.

Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts, said: "Synthetic biology is one of the most promising areas of modern science, which is why we have identified it as one of the eight great British technologies of the future. Synthetic biology has the potential to drive economic growth but still remains relatively untapped and these new centres will ensure that the UK is at the forefront when it comes to commercialising these new technologies."

£10M was allocated to the synthetic biology research centres following the announcement of £600M capital investment for Research Councils in the autumn 2012 statement. BBSRC will fund just over 70% of the remaining costs and EPSRC is providing nearly 30%.

Synthetic biology is a revolutionary new way of doing bioscience which applies engineering principles to biology to make new biological parts, devices and systems. Synthetic biology builds on our knowledge of DNA sequencing and could be used to develop new medicines, chemicals and green energy sources as well as improving food crops across the world. Specific applications are already emerging, but its long-term potential for a range of industrial sectors remains largely untapped.

At this evening's BBSRC event, David Willetts will highlight how the development of the biosciences over the last two decades has given the UK a world-leading position in this area, a strong basis for advancing future scientific knowledge, and an engine for economic growth.

Professor Jackie Hunter, BBSRC Chief Executive, said: "Our continued substantial investment in synthetic biology highlights the potential of this important area of science. We must find new solutions to the major global challenges that we face today and these research centres will seek more sustainable ways of producing important industrial materials, food and fuels, while advancing diagnostics and medicines."

Professor David Delpy, EPSRC Chief Executive, said:"Synthetic biology is a very rapidly moving field, bringing together the basic physical sciences with engineering innovation and applying these in the life sciences. It has enormous potential to help us tackle many of the big issues facing the world as well as resulting in new industries. These new centres are building on a solid foundation of investment from both Research Councils that has drawn together skills and knowledge from across all scientific and engineering disciples."

The new BBSRC/EPSRC Synthetic Biology Research Centres are:

Bristol Centre for Synthetic Biology (BrisSynBio): Led by Professor Dek Woolfson at the University of Bristol, this £14M centre will bring together scientists from a range of different research backgrounds to develop new techniques, technologies and reagents that will allow biologically-based products to be made easily, quickly and cheaply, and in sufficient quantities to make them useful. Researchers hope to develop new antibiotics; assemble virus-like particles to present new routes to vaccines; build simple cells from scratch; use red blood cells to deliver complex molecules like anti-cancer drugs directly to tumours; and reprogram bacteria to perform useful tasks like sensing environmental pollutants.

Synthetic Biology Research Centre Nottingham (SBRC Nottingham): Professor Nigel Minton at the University of Nottingham will develop a £14.3M centre to provide sustainable routes to important chemicals. They will use synthetic biology to engineer microorganisms that can be used to manufacture the molecules and fuels that modern society needs in a cleaner and greener way. They aim to use bacteria to convert gasses that are all around us (such as carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4)) into more desirable and useful molecules, reducing our reliance on petrochemicals.

OpenPlant Synthetic Biology Research Centre: Scientists lead by Prof. David Baulcombe and Dr Jim Haseloff at the University of Cambridge and Prof. Dale Sanders and Prof. Anne Osbourn at the John Innes Centre will collaborate in a £12M effort to develop open technologies for plant synthetic biology ( ). The OpenPlant initiative will establish internationally-linked DNA registries for sharing information about plant specific parts and simple testbeds. The development and exchange of new foundational tools and parts will directly contribute to the engineering of new traits in plants. OpenPlant will also provide a forum for technical exchange and wider discussion of the potential impact of plant synthetic biology on conservation and sustainability.

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