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Bristol awarded share of £40 million investment for UK synthetic biology

dna molecules

Press release issued: 29 January 2015

The University of Bristol has been awarded a share of £2.2 million as part of a new £40 million investment for UK synthetic biology. Business Secretary Vince Cable announced the multi-million investment at the Manchester Institute for Biotechnology, where researchers are using the technology to investigate how to use bacteria in place of fossil fuels to produce the chemicals we need to manufacture a wide variety of everyday products from credit cards, to nappies, to Tupperware tubs.

Synthetic biology applies engineering principles to biology to make and build new biological parts, devices and systems. It’s being used to make biological ‘factories’ that make products like medicines, chemicals and green energy, as well as tools for improving crops. Examples include biofuels and anti-malaria drugs made by microbes like yeast or bacteria. Synthetic biology has been identified by the UK Government as one of the ‘Eight Great Technologies’ in which Great Britain can be a world leader.

Business Secretary, Vince Cable, said: “From materials for advanced manufacturing to developing new antibiotics and better tests for diseases, this new £40 million investment is in one of the most promising areas of modern science.

“It will see our world-class researchers using bacteria to produce chemicals to make everyday products like toothbrushes and credit cards, which are currently made from unsustainable fossil fuels.  Not only will this help improve people’s everyday lives in the future but it will support long-term economic growth.”

Bristol’s involvement will be a collaboration between the Universities of Oxford, Birmingham, Liverpool and Southampton who are working on a project to develop chemical methods for the synthesis of DNA fragments, the building blocks of synthetic biology needed to create useful biological components.  The team will focus specifically on developing methods for synthesizing ‘difficult’ DNA fragments including large pieces of DNA and those that contain important chemical modifications. The resulting DNA fragments will be used in a range of synthetic biology applications including in the production of new pharmaceuticals and agrochemicals, as components of diagnostic tests, and as therapeutics to treat diseases.

Bristol’s role in the project will be to develop methods for stitching together the synthesised DNA fragments to form much larger pieces of DNA and analysing their behaviour and usability.

Dr Paul Race from the School of Biochemistry, who is leading the Bristol part of the project, commented: “This is excellent news for synthetic biology researchers both in Bristol and beyond. The capability that this investment will provide will further enhance the world leading synthetic biology research being undertaken at the University.”

The £40 million investment comes from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the Medical Research Council (MRC) and capital investment from UK Government. The funding is allocated through a £32 million grant to establish three new synthetic biology research centres in Edinburgh, Manchester and Warwick and an £8 million grant to UK research partnerships, including Bristol, to help create the DNA starting blocks required for synthetic biology applications.

BBSRC Chief Executive, Jackie Hunter, said: “Through previous investments BBSRC, along with funding partners, has been able to position the UK as a world leader in synthetic biology. This new package of investments will ensure that the UK maintains this leadership position and continues to drive the potential of synthetic biology to contribute to the economy and society.”

EPSRC’s Chief Executive, Philip Nelson, said: “Synthetic Biology is a multi-disciplinary field that needs world-class research and skills if progress is to be made. Previous government investments through the research councils have put us at the leading edge in this area. These centres are yet another example of how investing in science and engineering can strengthen the UK’s long term economic future.”

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