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Business Secretary announces £40M for UK synthetic biology

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  • British ingenuity is using synthetic biology to investigate bacteria in place of fossil fuels as a source of the chemicals we need to make everyday essentials like nappies and credit cards
  • £32M will establish three new synthetic biology research centres in Edinburgh, Manchester and Warwick
  • £8M to help create the DNA starting blocks for synthetic biology
  • Applications in regenerative medicine, skin and gut health, drug development, agricultural chemicals and increasing crop production

Business Secretary Vince Cable has announced £40M investment in UK synthetic biology at the Manchester Institute for Biotechnology, where researchers are using the technology to investigate how to use bacteria in place of fossil fuels to produce the chemicals we need to manufacture a wide variety of everyday products from credit cards, to nappies, to Tupperware tubs.

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Dr Cable announced £32M to establish three new Synthetic Biology Research Centres at The University of Edinburgh, The University of Manchester and The University of Warwick. The three new centres will receive funding over five years to boost national research capacity and to ensure that there is the expertise to nurture the growing synthetic biology industry in the UK. An additional £8M has been awarded to research partnerships across the UK to help create the DNA starting blocks required for synthetic biology applications.

The investment comes from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the Medical Research Council (MRC) and capital investment from UK Government.

Business Secretary, Vince Cable, said: "From materials for advanced manufacturing to developing new antibiotics and better tests for diseases, this new £40M investment is in one of the most promising areas of modern science.

"It will see our world class researchers using bacteria to produce chemicals to make everyday products like toothbrushes and credit cards, which are currently made from unsustainable fossil fuels. Not only will this help improve people's everyday lives in the future but it will support long-term economic growth."

Synthetic biology is a new way of doing science that applies engineering principles to biology to make and build new biological parts, devices and systems. It's being used to make biological 'factories' that make useful products like medicines, chemicals and green energy, as well as tools for improving crops. Examples include biofuels and anti-malaria drugs made by microbes like yeast or bacteria. Synthetic biology has been identified by the UK Government as one of the 'Eight Great Technologies' in which Great Britain can be a world leader.

BBSRC Chief Executive, Jackie Hunter, said: "Through previous investments BBSRC, along with funding partners, has been able to position the UK as a world leader in synthetic biology. This new package of investments will ensure that the UK maintains this leadership position and continues to drive the potential of synthetic biology to contribute to the economy and society."

EPSRC's Chief Executive, Philip Nelson, said: "Synthetic Biology is a multi-disciplinary field that needs world class research and skills if progress is to be made. Previous government investments through the research councils have put us at the leading edge in this area. These centres are yet another example of how investing in science and engineering can strengthen the UK's long term economic future."

Dr Nathan Richardson, Head of Molecular and Cellular Medicine at the Medical Research Council, said: "The MRC supports world-leading research in synthetic biology and is committed to foster innovation to develop tools and technologies to better understand the biology of health and disease, and also to engineer new systems to develop new bio-therapeutics and biosensors for health. These new investments will serve to enhance UK strengths in this exciting area."

BBSRC has also awarded £8M to help create the building blocks of synthetic biology – the synthetic fragments of DNA needed to create useful biological components. The funding will build capacity in DNA synthesis through partnerships at the Universities of Edinburgh, Cambridge, Liverpool, Oxford, Bristol, Birmingham, Southampton, Imperial College and The Genome Analysis Centre.

ENDS

About the Synthetic Biology research centres

The new centres are funded from: £10.6M capital investment from the 2012 Autumn Statement; £10M from BSBRC; £10.8M from EPSRC; £0.7M from MRC

Edinburgh's Centre for Mammalian Synthetic Biology, Professor Susan Rosser (£11.4M)
Building in-house expertise in synthetic biology in mammalian systems for use in areas such as the pharmaceutical and drug testing industries, biosensing cell lines for diagnostics, novel therapeutics, production of protein based drugs e.g. antibodies and also programming stem cell development for regenerative medicine applications.

SYNBIOCHEM at The University of Manchester, Professor Nigel Scrutton (£10.2M)
Designing and engineering biological parts, devices and systems for sustainable fine and speciality chemicals production, including new products and intermediates for drug development, agricultural chemicals and new materials for sustainable manufacturing.

Warwick Integrative Synthetic Biology Centre (WISB), Professor John McCarthy (£10.5M)
WISB will utilise state-of-the-art principles of biosystems design and engineering to develop next-generation synthetic biology tools, biosynthetic pathways that generate valuable bioactives, synthetic communities of microbes that could help improve the environment as well as skin and gut health, and plants with enhanced resistance to stress and pathogens.

DNA synthesis

BBSRC has awarded £7.9M for capacity building in DNA synthesis.

Imperial College London, Professor Richard Kitney, £1.3M
This will establish a platform to support a suite of synthetic biology software tools, allowing the seamless integration of hardware, management and analysis of generated data for the purpose of building a professional DNA synthesis workflow.

Edinburgh and Liverpool universities, led by Professor Susan Rosser, £2.4M
To enable the rapid design and synthesis of multiple varied DNA circuits (e.g. metabolic pathways, biosensors, counting/memory devices) and interrogate the utility of these circuits within host cell chassis via an array of assays including growth and fermentation characteristics, cell health, fluorescent reporters, RNA seq and metabolite profiling.

Edinburgh and Cambridge universities, and The Genome Analysis Centre, led by Dr Patrick Yizhi Cai (£2.0M)
This proposal seeks to enhance national capacity of synthetic DNA design and manufacture, and to ensure the UK is internationally competitive and increase both national and international collaboration. It brings together three strong software teams across the UK to develop national hardwired and software infrastructure for UK DNA Foundries.

Oxford, Liverpool, Bristol, Southampton, and Birmingham universities; led by Professor Tom Brown (£2.2M)
Ever larger pieces of DNA, such as genes and gene clusters, are required for Synthetic Biology, and making these can be a tedious and slows process. In this project they will analyse DNA made by modern ultra-high throughput chemical methods and optimise the process. They will also explore new ways to make large pieces of DNA.

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