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UK-Europe collaborations harness biology for engineering

19 May 2010

Four new projects, announced today, will develop biological methods that offer a new approach to antibiotic production, power generation for extremely small mechanical components, new classes of medicines and innovative techniques to study cell biology.

Teams comprising researchers from the UK and elsewhere in Europe will use synthetic biology to design systems with usefully engineered properties that are based on biology, or that use an engineering approach to pick apart a complex biological process.

The projects are funded through grants totalling £1.5M by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) under the EuroSYNBIO Programme, which is part of the European Science Foundation's European Collaborative Research Scheme (EUROCORES).

In addition to these four projects the EuroSYNBIO Programme is also funding a collaboration that is led by SINTEF in Norway and funded by five European funding agencies (see notes for details).

Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts said: "Synthetic biology is an exciting new area of research. Through sharing the UK's cutting edge bioscience knowledge and expertise with European partners, we can develop innovations which benefit the health and well-being of millions of people at home and abroad."

Professor Janet Allen, BBSRC Director of Research said: "Our understanding of biological systems is increasing all the time and sometimes we have observed a process in biology that chemists or physicists have struggled to engineer for years. Sometimes it is possible to mimic biology in the lab - to synthesise new antibiotics for example - but now that we have the tools to be able to harness useful biological processes we can do this sort of thing much more efficiently, at a lower cost, and with a greater potential to discover brand new products. These four projects open up some exciting possibilities for using a synthetic biology approach to answer important questions in biological sciences and its applications.

"Synthetic biology requires specialised approaches so it is extremely valuable for researchers funded by the UK Research Councils to have the chance to collaborate outside of the UK in this field. The opportunity for European partnerships that has been created by the EuroSYNBIO Programme will certainly help to advance this area of research."

Dr Lesley Thompson, EPSRC Director of Research said: "EPSRC believes that engineering has a crucial role to play in developing the synthetic biology research agenda and in maximising its potential benefit to the UK, so it is a priority programme for us. The UK is already proving influential in this area internationally, partnering with the US National Science Foundation and within the EU, shown by the fact that four out of the five projects funded under this Programme have UK partners."

"The ultimate ambition of the field is to extend the mastery of biological engineering to systems complex enough to deal with grand challenges such as the design, synthesis and delivery of novel therapeutic treatments, affordable and precise diagnosis of diseases, novel routes to vaccines, fuel production, bioremediation of pollutants, biocompatible carbon sequestration, and efficient manufacturing of biopharmaceuticals and biochemicals. We hope to transform biotechnology into a true engineering discipline with the corresponding properties of reliability and accuracy in design."

EUROCORES programmes enable researchers in different European countries to develop collaborations in areas where international scale and scope are required for top class science in a global context. The scheme provides a flexible framework for national organisations that fund or carry out research to join forces in supporting leading edge European research in and across all scientific areas. The national organisations support all aspects of the programme including scientific coordination, networking and research funding, which in the case of EuroSYNBIO has been led by BBSRC with co-funding from EPSRC.

In a project led by University of Technology in Dresden, Dr Richard Berry's team at the University of Oxford will also partner with teams from, University of Basel, University of Berne, ETH Zurich and Universidad Autonoma de Madrid as the NANOCELL consortium. NANOCELL aims to develop components for bio-nanotechnology, such as microscopic propellers driven by biological rotary motors that would allow components of tiny biochemical factories to move under their own power.

Dr Philip Holliger will lead a project based at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology Cambridge with partners from Catholic University of Leuven, University of Bonn and Genoscope in France. The project is to develop synthetic biology methods for producing medicines known as aptamers that are based on nucleic acids (such as RNA and DNA) that have characteristics that are not found naturally. These medicines can be developed such that they target specific RNA, DNA or protein molecules in the body for therapeutic applications. Aptamer technology is already used as a medicine for treating macular degeneration - one of the leading causes of blindness in older people.

In a project led by University of Technology Dresden, Professor David Sherratt's team at the University of Oxford will also partner with a team from Delf University of technology. The three groups of researchers will use an engineering approach to understand how proteins that control cell division behave inside a living cell, and in particular where exactly they are found and how they interact with other cell components.

In a project led by the University of Groningen, The Netherlands, Dr Nicolas Szita's team at University College London will also partner with teams from ETH Zurich, Eberhard Karls University Tubingen, University of Regensburg and the Organisation for International Dialogue and Conflict Management in Vienna. The researchers will work together to identify and then produce new antibiotics by integrating synthetic biology techniques with bioprocess engineering.

Professor Allen continued: "Synthetic biology is a fairly new discipline and represents some of the most forward-looking research in biological sciences at the moment. Together with EPSRC and Sciencewise ERC, BBSRC has recently been exploring the range of perspectives of the UK public on synthetic biology to ensure that the cutting edge research that is carried out in this field is supported by policies that reflect the views, concerns and aspirations of the people who fund it - the UK taxpayers."

For more information about the projects, please see the notes below.


Notes to editors


Dr Richard Berry, University of Oxford
Professor Daniel Müller, University of Technology Dresden (Project Leader) Professor Helmut Grubmüller, Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry Dr Thomas Meier, Max Planck Institute of Biophysics Professor Wolfgang Meier, University of Basel Professor Dimitros Fotiadis, University of Berne Professor Sven Panke, ETH Zurich Professor José Carrascosa, Universidad Autonoma de Madrid.
Project title: NANOCELL
BBSRC funding: £177K
EPSRC funding: £177K
Total funding: £354K

The NANOCELL consortium aims to engineer biological components that can be placed in cell-like structures - together called "NANOCELLS". These NANOCELLS will be prototype biochemical factories for future applications in bio-nanotechnology. A lot of the work will focus on developing a suitable membrane to surround the NANOCELLS. One other goal of the consortium is to test membranes that contain a naturally occurring motor called the F1F0 ATP-Synthase. F1F0 is actually two rotary motors connected in opposition and the final goal of this part of the project is to use one or both of the motors to drive a propeller that will allow NANOCELLS to move under their own power.

Dr Philip Holliger, MRC Centre Cambridge
Professor Piet Herdewijn, Catholic University of Leuven ProfessorMichael Famulok, University of Bonn Dr Valerie Pezo, Genoscope, France.
Project title: SYNAPTA: An artificial genetic system and its application for the generation of novel nucleic acid therapeutics
BBSRC funding: £152K
EPSRC funding: £152K
Total funding: £304K

Aptamers (structured single stranded nucleic acid molecules that bind to a specific target) are a promising class of biomolecular therapeutics and examples are in various stages of clinical trial or usage. One difficulty with using conventional aptamers is that they tend not to be easily bioavailable and can be unstable in the body, which limits therapeutic effectiveness. This project aims to develop an artificial system based on nucleic acids (such as RNA and DNA) that have characteristics that are not found naturally. This system could effectively tailor make aptamers that are more stable, bioavailable, and active.

Professor David Sherratt, University of Oxford
Professor Petra Schwille, University of Technology Dresden (Project Leader) Professor Cees Dekker, Delft University of Technology.
Project title: Synthetic Biology of Bacterial Cell Division (SYNDIV)
BBSRC funding: £355K
EPSRC funding: £39K
Total funding: £394K

Prior to cells dividing, chromosomes are segregated to certain areas of the cell to ensure equal division of genetic material between the two cells generated by the division. This project aims to understand how proteins that control cell division behave inside a living cell, and in particular where exactly they are found and how they interact with other cell components. They will do this by comparing bacteria that are freely moving to bacteria that are physically squeezed in a nanostructure. This technique will be combined with 4D multicolour epifluorescence microscopy - a technology that allows visualisation of the proteins and what they are doing in the cell in real time.

Dr Nicolas Szita, University College London
Professor Oscar Kuipers, University of Groningen (Project Leader) Professor Sven Panke, ETH Zurich Professor Friedrich Götz, Eberhard Karls University Tubingen Professor Ralf Wagner, University of Regensburg Dr Markus R Schmidt, Organisation for International Dialogue and Conflict Management, Vienna.
Project title: Characterisation of cellular assemblies in microfluidic systems (synthetic biology to obtain novel antibiotics and optimized production systems) (SYNMOD)
BBSRC funding: £363K
EPSRC funding: £40K
Total funding: £403K

This project is part of an international research effort called SYNMOD (Synthetic biology to obtain novel antibiotics and optimised production systems). SYNMOD integrates basic science of synthetic biology with bioprocessing engineering in order to achieve new and improved antibiotics to overcome the growing problem of antimicrobial resistance. The UK project will develop protocols and technologies that allow quick characterisation of biological parts and cells and to understand their behaviour under different conditions. This will rely on so-called 'microfluidic' reactor systems, i.e. small micro-fabricated chambers with gas permeable membranes to provide the oxygen the cells need, which hold possibilities for parallelisation and automation in the future.

Non-UK project led by
Dr. Trygve Brautaset, SINTEF, Norway (Funding Agency: Norges Forskningsråd - other partners funded from other sources)
Project title: SynMet: A synthetic Biology Approach for Engineering of Bacterial Methylotrophy
Professor Julia Vorholt, ETH Zürich - Funding Agency: Schweizerischer Nationalfonds Professor Volker Wendisch, Westfalian Wilhelms University Münster - Funding Agency: Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft Professor W.J. Quax, University of Groningen - Funding Agency: Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek Professor Jean-Charles Portais, University of Toulouse (associated partner) - Funding Agency: Agence Nationale de la Recherche (FR)

Some microorganisms can utilise compounds containing just one carbon atom such as methane and methanol. This project will integrate genomic and experimental knowledge of such organisms and use computational methods to identify which elements of their metabolism represent the minimum requirements for processing one-carbon compounds. These elements could potentially be used together to produce bulk chemicals from methanol using bacteria.

About synthetic biology dialogue

BBSRC and EPSRC recognise that synthetic biology is a potentially contentious area of research. The research councils, with support from Sciencewise ERC, are currently undertaking a synthetic biology dialogue to allow the diverse perspectives of a range of UK residents to be presented clearly, and in public, in order that future policies can better reflect these views, concerns and aspirations. For more information see related links.


EPSRC is the main UK government agency for funding research and training in engineering and the physical sciences, investing more than £850 million a year in a broad range of subjects - from mathematics to materials science, and from information technology to structural engineering.


BBSRC is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £450M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life in the UK and beyond and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders, including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.

BBSRC provides institute strategic research grants to the following:

  • The Babraham Institute
  • Institute for Animal Health
  • Institute for Biological, Environmental and Rural Studies (Aberystwyth University)
  • Institute of Food Research
  • John Innes Centre
  • The Genome Analysis Centre
  • The Roslin Institute (University of Edinburgh)
  • Rothamsted Research

The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research.


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