New synthetic biology network

6 June 2008

UCL has been chosen as the hub of one of seven new synthetic biology networks, located at universities across the UK. Researchers across six departments at UCL and Birkbeck College are involved in the network, entitled Synbion.

John Ward

Four UK research councils have come together to announce funding for the new projects, designed to rapidly build the UK’s expertise and capacity in the emerging field of synthetic biology.

The Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) have awarded funding to seven new ‘networks’ in synthetic biology to allow UK researchers to build links across institutions and discipline boundaries to form a true synthetic biology community. The networks, which formally involve eight universities, will have a strong social and ethical dimension and, where relevant to the projects, also have funding from the Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

Synthetic biology is the engineering of biology – the synthesis of complex, biologically based, or inspired systems that display functions that do not exist in nature. Many scientists believe that this approach will ultimately result in the rational and systematic design of systems that may help us to address the major challenges of the future. Possible applications of synthetic biology could include the creation of systems to generate power, new medical applications, nanoscale biological computers, new approaches to cleaning up dangerous waste or sensitive biosensors for health or security applications. The new projects aim to increase capability so that the UK is at the forefront of this research, and a significant part of this will entail bringing bioscientists, engineers, computer scientists and others together.

The aim of the Synbion Network will be to explore the full range of what biologically designed elements could achieve in the fields of electronics, optics, opto-electroincs and magnetics, and combinations of these fields.

Over three years the Network members will be challenged to discuss not only the design of novel bio-electronic and bio-optical devices but also to consider how to best manufacture and scale-up such devices. The initial network will bring together biologists (molecular biologists, microbiologists, biophysicists and bioinformaticians), social scientists, physicists, chemists, chemical and biochemical engineers. The ability to design and construct novel genetic entities leads to issues of ethical, social and legal challenges, which is being addressed at UCL with members of the Science and Technology Studies department.

Professor John Ward (UCL Institute for Structural and Molecular Biology) will lead Synbion with Dr Irilenia Nobeli (Department of Crystallography at Birkbeck). Professor Ward said: “This network gives UCL and our colleagues a head start in what promises to be a very exciting and productive new field of research”

The total investment by the research councils is almost £900,000. The networks will use this funding to build multidisciplinary links between different labs and develop the tools and language required for synthetic biology research, enabling the UK to punch its weight internationally in this field.

Professor Nigel Brown, BBSRC Director of Science and Technology, speaking on behalf of all four funding research councils, said: “The UK has world-class bioscience and engineering communities and our aim is to build capacity for a world-leading UK synthetic biology research community quickly. Synthetic biology has huge potential to help us both further our understanding of natural biological systems and also develop new biologically based systems to tackle future challenges. The four research councils working together in this initiative shows that the future of synthetic biology in the UK relies not only on bringing together biologists and engineers but also on ensuring that the societal issues are considered from the start.”

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Image: Professor Ward