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Cash boost for synthetic biology research

6 August 2014

Cash boost for synthetic biology research

Academics from across Cardiff University will get the chance to develop new research focused on synthetic biology as part of a new cash boost.

The Cardiff Synthetic Biology Initiative is designed to fund a number of short projects for the purpose of developing synthetic biology-related research in Cardiff.

Key to this initiative is supporting career progression and retention of exceptional research staff that will develop their careers in synthetic biology.

The fund also aims to facilitate involvement with the Innovation and Knowledge Centre (IKC) in Synthetic Biology at Imperial College (SynbiCITE), of which Cardiff University is an academic partner.

Professor Jim Murray, who leads the Cardiff Synthetic Biology Initiative at Cardiff said: "Synthetic Biology covers a diverse range of activities across engineering, computing, physical and biological and biomolecular sciences.

"We aim to increase understanding of the complex processes occurring within biological systems from whole organisms to cellular and molecular scales as well as develop techniques for the fabrication of novel devices and sensors at the interface of physical and biological systems.

"The vision is to create a dynamic centre of entrepreneurial synthetic biology at Cardiff, and we are excited to be part of the national centre at SynbiCITE and the opportunities that this provides to build further on our collaborations with industry to commercialise new products and services in this rapidly expanding area."

Five synthetic biology projects have already been awarded under this scheme to researchers in the Schools of Chemistry, Engineering and Biosciences, highlighting the cross-disciplinary nature of this rapidly expanding area of research.

Synthetic biology is essentially the re-programming of naturally-occurring biological systems in order to produce reliable products for use in wide-ranging applications and applies engineering principles to biology. It has the potential to provide novel solutions to some of the major challenges that we face in society, in areas such as healthcare, energy and the environment.

Progress over the past decade has improved dramatically, due to our greater understanding of biological systems, and exponential advances in how we synthesise and analyse DNA. Advances in synthetic biology capability and/or technology involves developing more advanced high-throughput screening methods or DNA synthesis techniques, to design and engineering of biologically-based parts to perform new functions in a more reliable and predictable way and the development of different types of 'hosts' or 'chassis' (ie cells) that are used in the synthetic biology process. Particularly relevant is the development of new industrial strains of hosts that would be ideal for large-scale, industrial synthesis of biological products.

A current holder of a Cardiff Synthetic Biology Initiative award is Professor Eshwar Mahenthiralingam of Cardiff School of Biosciences who is laying the foundation for synthetic engineering of Burkholderia bacteria, as a novel host or chassis for use in synthetic biology.

Professor Mahenthiralingam said "Burkholderia bacteria occur widely in nature, particularly around the roots of important crops. They carry out many important functions such as making antibiotics, commercial enzymes, breaking down pollutants, promoting plant growth and protecting crops from disease.

"By engineering and exploitation of these beneficial functions, we have an exciting opportunity to deliver a suite of synthetic biology tools for research and ultimately wider biotechnological use"

A new call has now been announced, inviting further applications for new research projects in synthetic biology, up to a maximum of £46.5K.

The major aims of the Cardiff Synthetic Biology Initiative are:

  • To train or retrain interested and motivated postdoctoral researchers to provide essential research skills for synthetic biology
  • To provide data and track record in order to obtain external funds through SynbiCITE, RCUK, industry etc. as well as independent career development fellowships in synthetic biology within the next 1-2 years.