UCL Department of Biochemical Engineering



The Synbion Network explored what biologically designed elements could achieve in the fields of electronics, optics, opto-electroincs and magnetics and combinations of these fields and ended in 2013

Synbion Network (Archive from 2013)

The Synbion Network aimed 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. It ran from 2010 to 2013.

Over the three years the Network members were 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.

Please click here to find out about current Synthetic Biology activities at UCL Biochemical Engineering

Below is an archive of the content of the website www.ucl.ac.uk/synbion

Our Research

Synthetic gene networks for bioprocess control

Pharmaceutical products have expanded in the last decade to increasingly include high molecular weight proteins, nucleic acids and even whole cells. Critical factors in bioprocessing of these products are often controlled heuristically via the operational parameters of process devices or empirically with cultivation protocols and recipes. We are exploring the ability to control bioprocess factors at the cellular level through design of synthetic gene networks which function as control circuits to trigger phenotypes for improved bioprocessing.

De novo designed pathways

De novo pathways are conventionally orthogonal to the host cells used to house them. One challenge resulting from this conventional approach can be the need for continual intracellular substrate replenishment. This can be addressed in part by rational, concerted modification of both host cell metabolic pathways and substrate-specificty within the de novo biosynthetic pathway. Firstly host-cell metabolites with potential to act as substrates must be identified. Intracellular abundance of these metabolites can then be boosted by increasing expression of enzymes critical to their biosynthesis or down-regulating enzymes critical to their degradation. These strategies can be used to integrate de novo pathways with their host cells for greater efficiency in whole cell biocatalysts.


The Synthetic Biology community is drawn from a number of departments across UCL, including Biochemical Engineering, Chemistry, Computer Science, Mathematics and Structural and Molecular Biology. 


Events & News


A 6-day intensive exchange laboratory for artists, designers, 
synthetic biologists, engineers and others, running from the 4th to the 9th July at UCL.  Further details can be found here.

UCL wins gold!

This years iGEM team have triumphed in getting a Gold medal in the finals of the iGEM Jamboree at MIT.

The 2010 UCL team consisted of students from SMB, Biochemical Engineering and Science and Technology Studies, and an artist and a designer. The team designed, modeled and constructed a genetic circuit that allowed self induction of a promoter in E. coli in response to the oxygen ‘spike’ seen in fermentations of recombinant E. coli. The website shows the sophisticated design of their genetic circuit.

Congratulations to the UCL iGEM team.


Enabling Systems Biology Conference

April 11-14, 2011 The meeting will gather the current expertise in systems biology approaches used to tackle 4 domains of research: cell cycle, cellular signaling, metabolism and stem cells. The meeting will be held at UCL and is supported by the European Network of Excellence ENFIN. For further details and registration please see the website.

Harden Conference

Synthetic biology: design and engineering through understanding

The overarching aims of Synthetic Biology are to develop a firm basis for the design and engineering of new biological and biologically inspired molecules and collections of molecules (so-called systems), and to put these to useful purposes. The conference will illustrate the potential of this emerging cross-disciplinary area; showcase current successes; and present the underpinning biology, engineering and systems understanding necessary to design synthetic biological systems reliably and predictably.

This meeting will take place from the 22-26 August 2011. For further details please see the Biochemical Society website.

Recent Papers

One idea for biosensors and bioenergy is to combine living cells with inorganic materials. Researchers have taken a step towards this goal by engineering the bacterium Escherichia coli to transmit electrons to inorganic materials. >>more

Article in Nature on using synthetic biology to provide a sustainable approach to the built environment. >>more

MRes in Synthetic Biology

The MRes in Synthetic Biology would like to attract students from a wide range of science backgrounds in both the physical, engineering, chemical and mathematical sciences as well as graduates from biology based science degrees and train them in the new field of Synthetic Biology. 

The objectives to reach this goal will be to teach the areas that make up Synthetic Biology which include engineering principles, mathematical modeling, molecular biology, biochemical engineering and chemistry. There will be a major research project where topics can be chosen spanning the expertise in 6 departments across UCL.   There will also be training in Research Methods and in critically assessing journal publications in Synthetic Biology. The goal will be to train multidisciplinary masters students able to understand the new area of Synthetic Biology, be skilled in its practice  and  to be able to transfer these skills to further research, to industry and teaching.

For further details and how to apply please click here


A list of on-line tools and other software used in synthetic biology.

The Systems Biology Markup Language (SMBL)

SBML is a computer-readable format for representing models of biochemical reaction networks in software. It's applicable to models of metabolism, cell-signaling, and many others. SBML has been evolving since mid-2000 thanks to an international community of software developers and users.

Ethical and societal issues

The breadth of activities covered by the term 'Synthetic Biology' and the lack of a universal and single definition are likely to pose challenges in effecting constructive public dialogue around this science. In 2007, BBSRC's Bioscience for Society Strategy Panel established a Working Group to consider the societal issues raised by Synthetic Biology. 

The Group commissioned an independent review of the UK's position on Synthetic Biology and its broader social context, by Dr Paul Martin and Andrew Balmer of the Institute for Science and Society, University of Nottingham. The findings from this review are helping to inform the Synbiom contribution and its role in raising public awareness and stimulating constructive public dialogue about synthetic biology. 

The review drew attention to several issues, including:

  • perceptions of scientists 'playing God' in creating synthetic life
  • the intentional or accidental release of synthetic organisms into the environment
  • the misuse of synthetic organisms to create biological weapons, by nation states, terrorists or biohackers
  • the need to employ the precautionary principle and treat synthetic life forms as dangerous until proved otherwise
  • a commercial race to synthesise and privatise synthetic life forms
  • current patent law may stifle collaboration and development, and overcomplicate the patent process.

Synbion, and the other synthetic biology networks across the UK, is addressing these ethical, legal and social (ELSI) issues as an integral part of its work, drawing upon expertise from the humanities and social sciences as appropriate.

Synbion Network

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 the three years the Network members will be challenged to discuss not only the design of novel bio-electronic and bio-optical devices and 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 we are addressing at UCL with members of the Science and Technology Studies department.

SynBion is being led by Professor John Ward of the Institute for Structural and Molecular Biology at UCL with Dr Irilenia Nobeli from the Department of Crystallogrophy at Birkbeck. The Synbion Network also includes 5 other universities in the UK.

SynBion is jointly funded by the BBSRC and EPSRC with additional funds from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

Research areas

Phage engineering
Pathway construction
Electron transport
Spin labels
Linear dichroism 

Meetings & news


A 6-day intensive exchange laboratory for artists, designers, synthetic biologists, engineers and others. The course is run by the Arts Catalyst, UCL and Synthetic Aesthetics, in partnership with SymbioticA.

Exchange Laboratory: 4-9 July 2011
Location: University College London
Deadline for applications: 10:00 am, Monday 4 April 2011

Synthetic Biology is an emerging area of research which applies engineering principles to biology. Synthesis will be an intensive exchange laboratory for artists, designers, synthetic biologists, engineers, and others from relevant disciplines, collaboratively  exploring synthetic biology's ideas and techniques and its social and cultural implications. The exchange laboratory will be devised and led by scientists including Prof John Ward (UCL) in collaboration with artist/designers Oron Catts (SymbioticA UWA/Royal College of Art) and Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg (Synthetic Aesthetics). It is organised by The Arts Catalyst, UCL and Synthetic Aesthetics.

Synbion Network Annual Meeting

The annual meeting of the Synbion Network took place on Tuesday 14th December 2010 at the Institute of Physics, London. This one-day meeting focused on two main themes: De novo designed pathways and Constructing electronic and optical devices. 


Here is a selection of different material that will be of interest to members of Synbion.

Synthetic Biology

A printable flyer produced by the BBSRC to explain how synthetic biology links bioscience, engineering and computer sciences to develop rationally designed biological parts, devices and systems.

Postnote (January 2008; Number 298)

This postnote from the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology offers a superb four-page summary of the aims and applications of synthetic biology.

Synthetic Biology: scope, applications and implications

A substantial 64-page report from the Royal Academy of Engineering, covering the emergence and recent development of synthetic biology; enabling technologies and tools; applications and future visions.

Synthetic Biology (2 and 3 June 2008)

This summary document of a discussion meeting held at the Royal Society on 2 and 3 June 2008 offers a broad review of this developing field. Sections very concisely review topics such as foundation technologies, systems biology, designing genetic control circuits, and the future development of synthetic biology.