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£20M investment for UK synthetic biology research

9 November 2012

  • Six large research projects offer benefits for major industries in bioenergy and biotechnology
  • Potential for low-carbon fuel and reduced cost of industrial raw materials
  • Long-term investment to investigate potential of synthetic biology and help deliver economic growth

In a move that could potentially revolutionise major UK industries and help us to meet serious social and environmental challenges, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) has announced an unprecedented £20M worth of synthetic biology projects. The funding was announced by the Chancellor George Osborne today at the Royal Society.

The six projects focus on biotechnology and advanced bioenergy and will use synthetic biology to investigate major global challenges, such as producing low-carbon fuel and reducing the cost of industrial raw materials. The funding will also help to build a world-leading synthetic biology research community in the UK.

Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts said: "Synthetic biology could provide solutions to the global challenges we face and offers significant growth opportunities in a range of important sectors from health to energy. However the commercialisation of basic science is largely untapped.

"This investment is part of the Government's commitment to making the UK a world leader in the research and application of synthetic biology. It will help to ensure that academics and industry can realise its full potential."

The grants are part of BBSRC's Strategic Longer and Larger Awards scheme, which give world-leading teams the time and resources to address areas of key strategic importance. The grants form a network of investment in synthetic biology for the Knowledge Based Bioeconomy.

The awards were supported by contributions of nearly £3M from industry and three of the awards were co-funded in partnership with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), which contributed nearly £2M.

The announcement comes following the government's response to the Synthetic Biology Roadmap which sets out a shared vision for realising the potential of synthetic biology in the UK. The response welcomed recommendations to develop an internationally recognised world-leading synthetic biology research base and to deliver research responsibly and in a coordinated way.

Professor Douglas Kell, Chief Executive of BBSRC, said: "This funding is a major step in exploring the capacity of synthetic biology to develop useful applications. The investment recognises the important role that synthetic biology can play in addressing many of the grand challenges we face, and in helping to provide future prosperity."

The awards include:

  • £2.9M to help make low-carbon fuel, Professor Minton, University of Nottingham.

    Researchers are working to maximize the use of sustainable forms of energy by harnessing the ability of certain bacteria to 'consume' the gas carbon monoxide (CO) and convert it into useful chemicals and fuels.

    CO is an abundant resource, and a waste product of steel manufacturing, oil refining and other industries. If we can use this CO to provide more sustainable energy, it would also result in a reduction in fossil carbon emissions.

    Some routes to biofuel generation through biological systems have relied on conversion of plant materials, such as sugars and starch. This has led to concerns over competition with use of these products as food, and a refocusing of efforts on so-called 'second generation' biofuels.

    The researchers will gain a better understanding of how the biofuel-producing 'Clostridium ljungdahlii' functions and use synthetic biology approaches to broaden and extend product streams in an industrialized setting, without the need to consume valuable food or land resources.
  • £4.5M to understand natural biological 'factories' and their role in producing novel agrochemicals, Professor Challis, University of Warwick.

    Many microorganisms produce beneficial compounds, such as the antibiotic erythromycin made by a soil bacterium. Genome sequencing has shown that most microbes have the potential to produce very many more compounds than are actually observed. Realisation of this potential could lead to a strong flow of new compounds for testing as medicines and agrochemicals.

    This research will exploit the assembly line architecture of natural product biosynthesis to discover novel agrochemical leads and optimise them for application using synthetic biology tools. The ambitious programme aims to rapidly sequence the genomes of 40 microorganisms that are hypothesised to produce compounds of potential benefit to agriculture. Clusters of genes responsible for synthesising these compounds will be identified and manipulated so that they can be harnessed to make useful products.
  • £4.0M to establish a sophisticated new methodology for creating useful microorganism strains, Professor Stark, University of Glasgow.

    Synthetic Biology aims to design-build-test-modify biological systems for useful purposes. New sets of genes (encoded in DNA sequence) often need to be introduced and assembled in specified positions within a long DNA sequence. The genetic techniques currently available for this 'assembly' task are quite primitive and considered to be a serious bottleneck in synthetic biology.

    This research programme will establish a sophisticated new methodology for this gene assembly process which will achieve a step-change in the speed and efficiency of creating useful biological systems.
  • £4.0M to engineering synthetic microbial communities for biomethane production, Dr Soyer, University of Exeter ( http://osslab.ex.ac.uk/adLola.html).

    Some communities of microbes are able to produce an important biofuel, biomethane, as a waste product. This research aims to improve the functionality of biomethane-producing microbial communities by employing both top‐down (directed evolution) and bottom‐up (synthetic biology) engineering.

    This two-tiered approach will optimise natural communities and design synthetic communities to achieve robust, high-yield biomethane production. These developments will help to develop more sustainable bioenergy solutions for the UK economy and drive the efficiency of biomethane as an alternative fuel source.
  • £4.4M for the use of synthetic micro-organisms to develop industrial biocatalysts, Professor Turner, the University of Manchester.

    During the next 10-20 years, the chemical industry around the world will undergo a major transformation. As both oil and natural gas begin to run out, there is a need to switchover from oil-based starting materials to those derived from biomass.

    Biotechnology-based processes are therefore needed to convert inexpensive raw materials efficiently to high-value products. Industrial Biotechnology involves the use of nature's catalysts, known as enzymes, for the production of chemicals and related products.

    This research will help to rationally design and construct engineered biocatalysts and pathways that are capable of the efficient and robust conversion of simple, low-cost renewable feedstocks (e.g. cellulose, lipids, waste biomass) to high value end products.

    The researchers will develop a new approach to engineering robust biocatalysts by mimicking the process of evolution in the laboratory. This new platform technology will enable the optimisation of enzymes for industrial applications in a matter of weeks rather than the months which it currently takes.
  • £2.5M for the first step in engineering cereal that is less reliant on fertiliser, Professor Oldroyd, John Innes Centre.

    Reliance on inorganic nitrogen fertilisers is costly for the environment and for farmers. In developing countries, farmers may not have the resources nor the infrastructure for the production and supply of fertiliser, leading to lower yields. Even slight increases in nitrogen availability could significantly improve crop yields and have major economic benefits.

    Legumes (such as peas and beans) have evolved the capability to interact with bacteria in the soil that are able to 'fix' nitrogen from the atmosphere to make it available to the plant, supplying the plant with its nitrogen needs.

    This research will initiate the first steps towards the transfer of this biological nitrogen fixation to cereal crops, through engineering a signalling pathway that enables the plant to perceive nitrogen-fixing bacteria. This will offer the opportunity of some beneficial plant-bacterial association in cereals.

ENDS

Notes to editors

The Chancellor's speech at the Royal Society can be found here www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/speech_chx_091112.htm.

The Synthetic Biology Roadmap is available here www.rcuk.ac.uk/publications/reports/syntheticbiologyroadmap/.

The Government response to the Synthetic Biology Roadmap can be found here www.bis.gov.uk/assets/biscore/science/docs/r/12-1250-response-to-synthetic-biology-roadmap-for-uk (PDF).

About BBSRC

BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, and with an annual budget of around £445M (2011-2012), we support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see: www.bbsrc.ac.uk.
For more information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes see: www.bbsrc.ac.uk/institutes.