Press Office


£5m grant for synthetic biology project

A collaboration including Newcastle University has been awarded almost £5 million to develop new technology in the emerging field of synthetic biology.

The grant has been announced from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). Designed with Imperial and Kings Colleges London, and Cambridge and Edinburgh Universities, these technologies will be crucial for the commercial exploitation of synthetic biology by UK biotechnology companies.

The application of synthetic biology will both replace existing inefficient production processes and speed up the development of new processes and products for a wide range of industrial sectors, including chemical, materials, sensors, biofuels and healthcare industries.

Newcastle University will play a key role in the project, leading the computational design and the development of industrially relevant bacterial strains.

Professor Anil Wipat of the School of Computing Science is leading the Newcastle University end of the project and working with University colleagues including Dr Jennifer Hallinan, Professor Jeff Errington and Professor Colin Harwood

Professor Wipat said: “This work builds on ongoing cutting-edge work in the application of computing principles and technology to the design of novel, commercially valuable biological systems. This is an unrivalled opportunity to develop the infrastructure necessary to produce new and useful innovations for medicine, agriculture and the environment.”

Announcing the grant David Willetts, Science and Technology Minister, said: “Synthetic biology could provide solutions to many of humanity’s most pressing issues and at the same time presents significant growth opportunities. This investment will lay the groundwork for the commercialisation of research, ensuring academics and industry can realise the full potential of this exciting area of science.”

The grant will be used to establish a collection of standard biological components and devices. Automated processes will collect and analyse data that will be used in mathematical models to design predictable, reliable and environmentally friendly industrial processes and components. Another goal of the Consortium is to create a UK infrastructure for synthetic biology that will be widely available to universities throughout the UK and beyond, enhancing the UK’s reputation as one the leading global players in this technology.

Newcastle University is a centre of excellence for interdisciplinary computing science and bacterial cell biology, and has been active in synthetic biology for more than a decade. The University’s synthetic biology focus integrates world-leading expertise from across a wide variety of disciplines including computing science, engineering, mathematics and molecular biosciences. A major strength is the inclusion of the Centre for Bacterial Cell Biology (CBCB), the world’s first major research centre with a focus on fundamental bacterial cell processes. The expertise available at CBCB will allow the development and testing of new strains of bacteria for the commercial production of existing and novel products and processes, including antibiotics and other drugs, environmental sensors, agricultural processes and biofuel production. The research undertaken at Newcastle will build upon close existing ties with major European biotechnology companies.

Dr Kedar Pandya, EPSRC Engineering Theme Leader, commented: “Engineering research and leadership is critical to the further development of the UK’s synthetic biology sector. Engineering technology provides the necessary product standardisation, robustness and design.  We will continue to grow the investment we make in this area so that the UK’s research base continues to be world-leading.”

The emerging technology has the potential to make a major contribution to the government’s growth agenda, creating wealth and employment. In tandem with other fields of science, synthetic biology can play a significant part in addressing some of the key challenges that the world faces in the areas of energy, health and the environment.

published on: 24 May 2012