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Synthetic Biology for Growth Programme


In 2012, there were a number of important developments of direct relevance to synthetic biology research in the UK including:

  • Publication of 'A synthetic biology roadmap for the UK' which contained key recommendations to support and develop the UK research and industrial communities
  • Establishment of the Synthetic Biology Leadership Council (bringing together stakeholders from government, funding agencies, academia and industry)
  • Announcement of a government capital investment of £50M in synthetic biology in the 2012 Autumn Statement

To implement the roadmap recommendations, deliver on the investment from government and taking heed of the advice from the Synthetic Biology Leadership Council, the Research Councils came together to produce the business case for the Synthetic Biology for Growth Programme (SBfG). To develop the strategy for the delivery/implementation of the capital monies through the SBfG programme, the RCUK Synthetic Biology Working Group was established, under the direction of BBSRC. This group meets regularly and comprises representatives from BBSRC, EPSRC, ESRC, MRC and NERC, plus observers from Innovate UK and DSTL.

In total, the SBfG Programme represents investments of £102M:

  • £50M Autumn Statement capital
  • £1.37M capital from BBSRC
  • £50.5M resource funding provided for six SBRCs by BBSRC, EPSRC and MRC

The SBfG Programme consists of four streams of investment:

1. Multidisciplinary Synthetic Biology Research Centres (SBRCs)

Six SBRCs, representing a total investment of £70.5M, have been allocated funding over five years to boost national synthetic biology research capacity and ensure that there is diverse expertise to stimulate innovation in this area.

  1. BrisSynBio
    Led by: Professor Dek Woolfson, University of Bristol

    BrisSynBio aims to develop new techniques, technologies and reagents that will allow biologically-based products to be made easily, quickly and cheaply, and in sufficient quantities to make them useful. Researchers hope to develop new antibiotics; assemble virus-like particles to present new routes to vaccines; build simple cells from scratch; use red blood cells to deliver complex molecules like anti-cancer drugs directly to tumours; and reprogram bacteria to perform useful tasks like sensing environmental pollutants

  2. SBRC Nottingham
    Led by: Professor Nigel Minton, The University of Nottingham

    SBRC Nottingham will provide sustainable routes to important chemicals that modern society needs. They aim to use synthetic biology to engineer bacteria to convert gasses that are all around us (such as carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4)) into more desirable and useful molecules, reducing our reliance on petrochemicals

  3. OpenPlant
    Led by: Professor David Baulcombe and Dr Jim Haseloff, University of Cambridge
    Professor Dale Sanders and Professor Anne Osbourn, John Innes Centre

    The OpenPlant initiative will establish internationally-linked DNA registries for sharing information about plant specific parts and simple testbeds. The development and exchange of new foundational tools and parts will directly contribute to the engineering of new traits in plants. OpenPlant will also provide a forum for technical exchange and wider discussion of the potential impact of plant synthetic biology on conservation and sustainability

  4. UK Centre for Mammalian Synthetic Biology
    Led by: Professor Susan Rosser, The University of Edinburgh

    This Centre will build 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

    Led by: Professor Nigel Scrutton, The University of Manchester

    SYNBIOCHEM will bring scientists together to design and engineer 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

  6. Warwick Integrative Synthetic Biology Centre
    Led by: Professor John McCarthy, The University of Warwick

    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

2. DNA synthesis

Two phases of strategic capital investments in DNA synthesis totalling £18M were made to bring academic expertise to bear on bottlenecks in DNA synthesis, build bridges between academia and synthetic biology companies, help to nurture the UK's growing synthetic biology industry and boost UK's capability in the area to help create jobs and drive economic growth. The DNA synthesis investments were:

First phase

  • Edinburgh Genome Foundry
    Led by: Professor Susan Rosser, The University of Edinburgh

    The Edinburgh Genome Foundry will provide end-to-end design, construction and validation of large gene constructs (up to 1Mbp) for academia and industry, based on the automation of technologies
  • A DNA synthesis and construction foundry for synthetic biology
    Led by: Professor Paul Freemont, Imperial College London

    The Imperial Foundry will develop an experimental platform to enable a standardised framework for DNA synthesis, gene and genome assembly and assembly verification
  • Liverpool GeneMill
    Led by: Professor Anthon Hall, University of Liverpool

    The Liverpool GeneMill will develop a high throughput, automated workflow for synthesising genes and DNA parts in bacteria, fungus, plant and mammalian cells
  • Synthetic biology facility
    Led by: Professor Hugh Pelham, MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology

    Up to £2M to invest in a robotic platform to automate assembly of short DNA fragments into expressible genes, including the picking, growth and analysis of DNA from bacterial colonies
  • DNA Synthesis at the Norwich Research Park
    Led by: Dr Daniel Swan (previously Professor Mario Caccamo), Earlham Institute

    The DNA synthesis facility at the Norwich Research Park will support the design, generation and exploitation of high-value compounds and bioactives obtained from plants and microbes

Second phase

  • Software systems for Imperial College DNA Foundry
    Led by: Professor Richard Kitney, Imperial College London

    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
  • Assay Development Platforms
    Led by: Professor Susan Rosser, involving Edinburgh and Liverpool universities

    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
  • Building national hardware and software infrastructure for UK DNA Foundries
    Led by: Dr Patrick Yizhi Cai, involving Edinburgh and Cambridge universities

    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
  • Next Generation DNA Synthesis
    Led by: Professor Tom Brown, involving Oxford, Liverpool, Bristol, Southampton, and Birmingham universities

    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

3. Enhancing student training

Two capital investments of £1M each were made to the two BBSRC and EPSRC Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs) in synthetic biology at Oxford/Bristol/Warwick, and UCL. The funding will provide equipment to enhance student training at the CDTs, which are world-leading training environments for students of synthetic biology.

  • The BBSRC and EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Synthetic Biology at Bristol, Oxford and Warwick universities
    Up to £1M capital funding to enhance this CDT, including a dedicated synthetic biology laboratory in Oxford accessible to all students throughout their PhD and specialist facilities in Warwick and Bristol. This will increase the breadth and depth of synthetic biology training by exposing students to a wide range of cutting-edge capabilities
  • Sustaining world-class training and research innovation in synthetic biology-based biomanufacture at University College London (UCL)
    Up to £1M in capital funding for the EPSRC CDT in Bioprocess Engineering Leadership at UCL for the acquisition of state-of-the-art bioprocess and analytical equipment and establishment of dedicated training laboratories. This will stimulate development of new training activities which will be fully integrated within the IDC training programme

4. Synthetic Biology Seed Fund

£10M capital funding has been made available for investment through the Rainbow Seed Fund mechanism and is being managed by Midven. This fund is to support synthetic biology start-up companies and ‘pre-companies’ and was launched in November 2013.