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New projects to raise UK profile in Synthetic Biology

29 May 2008

Four UK Research Councils have come together to announce funding for new projects designed to rapidly build the UK’s expertise and capacity in the emerging field of synthetic biology. The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) have awarded funding to seven new ‘networks’ in synthetic biology to allow UK researchers to build links across institutions and discipline boundaries to form a true synthetic biology community. The networks, which formally involve eight universities, will have a strong social and ethical dimension and, where relevant to the projects, also have funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

Synthetic biology is the engineering of biology: the synthesis of complex, biologically based, or inspired, systems which display functions that do not exist in nature. Many scientists believe that this approach will ultimately result in the rational and systematic design of systems that may help us to address the major challenges of the future. Possible applications of synthetic biology could include the creation of systems to generate power, new medical applications, nanoscale biological computers, new approaches to cleaning up dangerous waste or sensitive biosensors for health or security applications. The new projects announced by the Research Councils aim to increase capability so that the UK is at the forefront of this research and a significant part of this will entail bringing bioscientists, engineers, computer scientists and others together.

The networks being announced today are centred on: the University of Bristol, Durham University, the University of Edinburgh, University College London & Birkbeck College, the University of Nottingham, the University of Oxford and the University of Sheffield. The total investment by the Research Councils is almost £900,000; the networks will use this funding to build multidisciplinary links between different labs and develop the tools and language required for synthetic biology research, enabling the UK to punch its weight internationally in this field.

Ian Pearson, Minister for Science and Innovation, said: "Synthetic biology is an exciting new, currently evolving field at the interface of bioscience and engineering. The design and construction of new biological parts, devices and systems and the re-design of existing natural biological systems for useful purposes has many potential applications in medicine, bio-energy and novel materials.

"By developing this emerging science, the UK will continue to keep its leading edge and increase its international competitiveness for the future. This initiative is aimed at raising UK profile and capability in this area to put the country at the forefront of the field."

Professor Nigel Brown, BBSRC Director of Science and Technology, speaking on behalf of all four funding Research Councils, said: "The UK has world-class bioscience and engineering communities and our aim is to build capacity for a world-leading UK synthetic biology research community quickly. Synthetic biology has huge potential to help us both further our understanding of natural biological systems and also develop new biologically-based systems to tackle future challenges. The four Research Councils working together in this initiative shows that the future of Synthetic Biology in the UK relies not only on bringing together biologists and engineers but also on ensuring that the societal issues are considered from the start."

Dr Brian Johnson, Chair of BBSRC’s Bioscience for Society sub-group on synthetic biology, commented on the ethical and social considerations of this area of science: "BBSRC has already set up a group to gain insight into public attitudes when setting research priorities in synthetic biology. We think it is important that scientists and research funders are aware of the wider social and ethical issues surrounding synthetic biology. From events that we and others have held recently, we are confident that UK scientists will address such issues when planning and carrying out research involving synthetic biology.

"The Research Councils are working closely together through the Research Councils UK partnership, to address social and ethical issues and to encourage constructive public engagement around the science and the opportunities that it offers. The Research Councils are committed to working with the Royal Society and other stakeholders in the field of synthetic biology."

ENDS

Notes to editors

The Networks in Synthetic Biology Initiative has awarded a total of £890,991 to eight institutions in seven networks. BBSRC and EPSRC have funded £390,000 each. ESRC has contributed £76,000 and AHRC has contributed £35,000.

The definition of synthetic biology used here is taken from the EU New and Emerging Science and Technology (NEST) programme report ‘Synthetic Biology – Applying Engineering to Biology’, published in 2005.

About BBSRC

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £420M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk

About EPSRC

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK’s main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. The 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 also actively promotes public awareness of science and engineering. 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. Website address for more information on EPSRC: http://www.epsrc.ac.uk

About ESRC

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It supports independent, high quality research which impacts on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s planned total expenditure in 2008/09 is £203 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and research policy institutes. More at http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk

About AHRC

Each year the AHRC provides approximately £100 million from the Government to support research and postgraduate study in the arts and humanities, from archaeology and English literature to design and dance. In any one year, the AHRC makes approximately 700 research awards and around 1,000 postgraduate awards. Awards are made after a rigorous peer review process, to ensure that only applications of the highest quality are funded. Arts and humanities researchers constitute nearly a quarter of all research-active staff in the higher education sector. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK. http://www.ahrc.ac.uk

External contact

Jane Reck, EPSRC press office

tel: 01793 444312

Natasha Richardson, EPSRC press office

tel: 01793 444404

Kelly Barnett, ESRC press office

tel: 01793 413032

Jake Gilmore, AHRC press office

tel: 0117 987 6773

Contact

Matt Goode, Head of External Relations

tel: 01793 413299
fax: 01793 413382

Tracey Jewitt, Media Officer

tel: 01793 414694
fax: 01793 413382