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UK Report Advises Government Investment, Coordination in Synthetic Biology

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The UK government today laid out a strategic vision aimed at increasing its investments and marshaling new efforts in synthetic biology, and in a related statement said it has joined a pan-European network to support synbio research and development.

In a new synthetic biology roadmap, organized by the UK's Department for Business Innovation and Skills, an independent group advised that the UK establish a synbio resource network, support the synbio research community, invest in new technologies, and establish a leadership council focused on synbio activities.

"Synthetic Biology has the ability to revolutionize major industries in bioenergy and biotechnology in the UK," Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts said in a statement from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. "If we develop this exciting area to its full potential there are fantastic opportunities in sectors such as biofuel and medical care that are largely untapped. This roadmap positions the UK as a leader in global synthetic biology, which presents significant growth and employment opportunities."

The report cites an analysis by BCC Research that concludes that the global synbio market will grow from $1.6 billion in 2011 to $10.8 billion by 2016.

The BBSRC also said today that it will join the ERASynBio network, an EU program with 16 partner countries supported by €2 million from the EU's Seventh Framework program.

The ERASynBio project seeks to promote development of synthetic biology by coordinating efforts, collaborations, and investment. It also intends to develop a white paper that will outline a research agenda and support national synbio programs and collaborations between academia and industry.

A BBSRC spokesperson told GenomeWeb Daily News today that it plans to pay the costs of UK scientists who join the research projects that ERASynBio plans to support through upcoming funding calls.

The first ERASynBio call, to be published in 2013, will support high-risk, high-reward research projects. A second call will address strategic gaps and opportunities that will be outlined in the white paper, and a parallel fellowship program will be established to support the movement of early-career researchers between academia and industry.

"Synthetic biology is a field that holds huge potential for addressing some of the major challenges of the 21st Century," BBSRC Chief Executive Douglas Kell said in a statement. "Freely sharing knowledge and resources across national and international boundaries is vital if the field is to realize this potential. ERASynBio will aide this by encouraging collaboration, strengthening networks, and building capacity across the European research base."

The authors of the synbio report, the Synthetic Biology Roadmap Coordination Group, advise that the UK should invest in a network of multidisciplinary centers focused on synbio research that will serve as a core network and will train new scientists. They recommend that the government immediately launch a process to begin creating this network.

Connected to that recommendation, the authors advise the UK to take steps to stimulate cross-disciplinary interactions and develop shared best practices and encourage innovative research proposals in synbio-related fields. They also recommend that the UK make investments that help companies evaluate how to use synbio in their markets, facilitate access to expertise and facilities, and invest in small-scale feasibility studies and large-scale R&D projects to demonstrate the use of synbio technologies for promising applications.

The UK also should assume a leading international role by promoting synbio within the US, China, and EU, and work with other countries to develop intellectual property frameworks and regulations that support and promote synbio technologies, the report recommends.

Lastly, the authors recommend that the UK establish a leadership council that will oversee the development and implementation of the roadmap, and would serve as a focal point for development of synbio within the UK.

"Synthetic biology has the potential to deliver significant benefits, addressing important challenges and generating exciting opportunities for growth — but much work needs to be done and has to be done responsibly," Lionel Clarke, chairman of the UK Synthetic Biology Roadmap Coordination Group, said in a statement. "Engaging the synthetic biology community in shaping this roadmap has contributed a first step towards realizing this potential, through building a shared vision."