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UK Awards $19.9M for Synthetic Biology Centers, Training

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The UK is investing £12 million ($19.9 million) to establish new synthetic biology facilities and provide training in the field, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council announced on Wednesday.

The UK Research Councils, led by BBSRC, will award £10 million to create five DNA synthesis centers "to further develop the UK's research base in synthetic biology," BBSRC said.

Additionally, £1 million is being provided to the BBSRC and Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Centre for Doctoral Training at the universities of Bristol, Oxford, and Warwick, and £1 million is going to the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training at University College London for equipment in order to enhance student training.

"Synthetic biology is one of the eight great technologies of the future with the potential to underpin growth and create jobs in a low carbon economy," Willets said in a statement. "This investment in [synthetic biology] will hopefully stimulate even more interest and financial support and reinforce our efforts to develop a leading synbio community in the UK."

The five DNA synthesis centers being established with the funding are located at the University of Edinburgh; Imperial College London; University of Liverpool; MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology; and the Genome Analysis Centre in Norwich.

The University of Edinburgh will use its £1.8 million award to establish the Edinburgh Genome Foundry, "which will provide end-to-end design, construction, and validation of large gene constructs for academia and industry."

A £2 million award will be used to create the DNA Synthesis and Construction Foundry at Imperial College. The foundry will develop a platform to enable a standardized framework for DNA synthesis, gene and genome assembly, and assembly verification, BBSRC said.

In a separate statement from the college, Richard Kitney, co-director of the Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation, said, "The new DNA Synthesis and Construction Foundry will not only scale up DNA synthesis to an industrial level, it will also provide much needed new infrastructure and facilities to collaborate with and train other academics and UK companies interested in synthetic biology."

Another £2 million will go to the University of Liverpool to create the Liverpool GeneMill, focused on developing a high-throughput, automated workflow for synthesizing genes and DNA parts in bacteria, fungus, plant, and mammalian cells.

The MRC Laboratory will invest its £2 million award into a robotic platform to automate the assembly of short DNA fragments into expressible genes, "including the picking, growth, and analysis of DNA from bacterial colonies."

The Genome Analysis Centre will use £1.9 million to set up a DNA synthesis facility at the Norwich Research Park to support the design, generation, and exploitation of high-value compounds and bioactives obtained from plants and microbes.

According to BBSRC, a major hurdle in synthetic biology is creating and assembling starting material, the modular bits of DNA that code for a specific function and which are synthesized in a laboratory. The centers being established with the new funding "will build on existing investments to further establish capability of DNA synthesis for synthetic biology in the UK to help tackle this problem."

The funding is derived from the Roadmap for Synthetic Biology in the UK laid out by the government in 2012. At the time, an independent group advised the government to establish a synbio resource network, support the synbio research community, invest in new technologies, and establish a leadership council focused on synbio activities as an economic growth strategy.

Since then, the UK has invested heavily into building out its synbio infrastructure. About a year ago, the UK said it planned to award as much as £80 million to create a network of multidisciplinary synbio research centers to serve as cores for research projects and to provide researchers with training and resources.

In February, the government announced £40 million in funding to create three new synthetic biology research centers.