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Synthetic biology


The synthetic biology priority falls within 'Exploiting New Ways of Working (ENWW)', one of three enabling themes in our current Strategic Plan. World-class bioscience is critically dependent on new technologies, methodologies and resources. The ENWW enabling theme aims to encourage research that will yield the next-generation of these 'new ways of working' underpinning all of our research remit, in an era of rapid technological advancement.

Synthetic biology is developing rapidly and is applicable to a wide range of biological problems. It could help to solve a number of major global challenges in fields including health and wellbeing, energy, food security and the environment.


The aim of this priority is to support world-leading multidisciplinary synthetic biology research in the UK.

Scientific scope

We are keen to encourage proposals in the emerging area of synthetic biology, which can be described as the design and construction of novel biologically based parts, devices and systems, as well as redesigning existing natural biological systems for useful purposes (ref 1). It incorporates the principles of engineering (e.g. modularity, abstraction and orthogonality) into classical biotechnology, and has a number of potential applications within the bio-based knowledge economy. These include, but are not limited to: industrial biotechnology, bioenergy, bioprocessing, novel materials and biosensors.

Within this context, we are keen to encourage proposals in the following areas.

  • Orthogonal biosystems: Engineering cells/organisms to include systems or parts not found in nature to impart new capacities or chemistry
  • Regulatory circuits: Designing and inserting well-characterised modules (circuits or networks), to generate new functions or responses in cells and organisms
  • Protocells: Bottom-up chemical design approaches to produce (semi-)synthetic cells and compartments
  • Metabolic engineering: Using complex modifications informed by predictive models, of biosynthetic pathways to allow/enhance production of useful products
  • Minimal genomes: Understanding the minimal number of parts (genes) needed for life, to serve as a chassis for engineering minimal cell factories for new functions
  • Bionanoscience: Utilising and exploiting synthetic molecular (nano) machines based on cellular systems

Proposals may be focused on a specific scientific question, sector, or industrial outcome, or aimed at underpinning technologies/research.


Projects should focus on underpinning and enabling one of our strategic research priorities (food security, industrial biotechnology, bioscience underpinning health) or have potential, generic utility across one or more broad areas of the biosciences.

It is expected that proposals will require strong multidisciplinary partnerships between bioscientists and researchers in engineering, the physical sciences and information technology disciplines.

Data sharing

Proposals should comply with our data sharing policy (see related links). Proposals developing informatics tools should make such tools available to the wider user and developer community with as few restrictions as possible, ideally using open source best practices (e.g. Creative Commons or Open Source Initiative recommended licences). However, we recognise that, at times, the creators' intellectual property rights may need to be protected before any sharing takes place, and this is encouraged where appropriate beforehand. Such protection should not unduly delay the release of any data/tools arising from BBSRC funding.


It is expected that proposals will provide tools and resources of potential application to broad communities in the biosciences.

Ethical and other issues

We recognise that synthetic biology raises potential social, ethical, legal and philosophical issues and that these should be considered concomitantly with the scientific agenda and as research progresses.

We are collaborating with Forum for the Future and Friends of the Earth (Northern Ireland, Wales and England) on enabling broad conversation on synthetic biology. The project, which is part funded by us, aims to map the various perspectives and issues around synthetic biology in order to understand more clearly the landscape surrounding the technology. See the report in downloads for further information.


  1. Realising European potential in synthetic biology: scientific opportunities and good governance European Academies Science Advisory Council (2010) (see downloads)