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UK Awards $32M for New Synthetic Biology Research

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The UK has pumped £20 million ($31.8 million) into several new research projects pursuing biotechnology and bioenergy goals as part of a new push to capitalize on the potential of synthetic biology technologies.

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council on Friday said it provided the majority of the funding for the six new projects, but £3 million came from industry partners and £2 million was provided by the UK's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

BBSRC said these grants are part of a UK government-led effort to use the nation's life sciences acumen and resources to become a global leader in synthetic biology-based businesses and research and development.

The vision that this field is ripe for investment and could be revolutionary for business, medicine, energy, and agriculture, was laid out in the Synthetic Biology Roadmap in July, which called for enhanced funding and coordination for synthetic biology research, resources, and infrastructure.

In a recent letter to the chair of the panel that drafted the report, Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts responded to the recommendations by saying that the UK has already taken several steps to address their proposals, and plans to pursue more.

Willetts said that the UK this year already has boosted funding for synthetic biology projects and research. He explained that the government has begun encouraging businesses to explore new uses for synthetic biology, awarded these new grants totaling £20 million, and plans to use £10 million to create a synthetic biology center resource.

In addition, the UK government plans to create a leadership council, which will hold its first meeting before the end of 2012, to consider a proposal made by the synthetic biology panel that the UK establish a number of networked centers that will boost the country's national research capacity in the field.

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne in a speech to the Royal Society on Friday said that the government has endorsed the Roadmap report. He told the society that synthetic biology is one of several core technology areas upon which the UK should be focused, noting that the global synthetic biology market is expected to grow to £11 billion by 2016.

"In the longer term, synthetic biology has the potential to create new markets in response to emerging future needs," Osborne told the Royal Society. "Our comparative advantage derives from our long-established global lead in the biological sciences – from solving the structure of DNA in the 1950s to sequencing the human genome in the 1990s. We are now one of the leaders in applying engineering techniques to genetics."

The six new projects announced Friday will aim to use synthetic biology-based approaches to address major global challenges, such as reducing carbon emissions, lowering the cost of creating agrochemicals, producing biomethane from microbes, and others. Beyond the scope of the specific projects these grants fund, a broader goal of this program is to cultivate and support the UK's systems biology research community.

"This funding is a major step in exploring the capacity of synthetic biology to develop useful applications," BBSRC Chief Executive Douglas Kell said in a statement. "The investment recognizes the important role that synthetic biology can play in addressing many of the grand challenges we face, and in helping to provide future prosperity."

Among the new awards, the University of Nottingham won a £2.9 million grant to study how the bacterium Clostridium ljungdahlii functions and to find ways to use this microbe to create a low-carbon fuel that consumes gas carbon monoxide and converts it into useful chemicals and fuels.

University of Warwick scientists will use £4.5 million to sequence the genomes of 40 microorganisms to identify and then manipulate clusters of genes that could be useful in developing and synthesizing new agrochemicals.

Researchers at the University of Glasgow landed a £4.0 million grant to develop methods based on gene assembly processes that could be used to create new strains of microorganisms

The University of Exeter will use £4.0 million to fund a project to engineer synthetic microbial communities that can produce biomethane using top-down directed evolution and bottom-up synthetic biology engineering approaches.

University of Manchester scientists were awarded a £4.4 million grant to use synthetic microorganisms to develop industrial biocatalysts that can be used to convert renewable feedstocks, such as cellulose, lipids, and biomass, to high-value end products

John Innes Centre scientists won a £2.5 million award to study how legumes have evolved the capability to interact with soil bacteria to access nitrogen in the atmosphere — a process called nitrogen fixation — with the aim of finding ways to engineer signaling pathways in cereal crops so that they can perform this function as well.