It starts with one BioBrick ..

BBSRC money fosters multidisciplinary teams to build UK strength in synthetic biology, writes Chloe Stothart

May 29, 2008

It could lead to the production of cheap antimalarial drugs for the Third World, could be applied to help clean up dangerous waste and may even be used to kill cancer cells.

The potential advances promised from the emerging field of synthetic biology are causing a stir. They are the subject of a two-day Royal Society conference next week, and a plan to help the UK become a global player in the field was unveiled this week.

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council has announced the winners of a scheme to build multidisciplinary networks in synthetic biology.

Under the £900,000 programme, the BBSRC is drawing together academics from disciplines as diverse as biology, engineering, computer science, law and social science to help shape the direction of the venture and to generate research ideas for future funding.

The bulk of the money comes from the BBSRC and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, but the Economic and Social Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council have all made contributions.

The cash will be shared between seven networks centred on the universities of Bristol, Durham, Edinburgh, Nottingham, Oxford and Sheffield and Birkbeck, University of London.

Synthetic biology applies an engineering approach to biological issues. It aims to design and build new biological parts or systems, or to re-engineer natural ones.

The UK lags behind the US in the field and is not yet the leader in Europe, but the BBSRC hopes the networks will help to change that. These are intended to build communities of academics interested in taking the field forward, who will also generate research proposals.

The groups will also consider how to engage the public in debate about synthetic biology and to respond to public opinion in an ethically contentious area. Those in the field are keen to avoid a repeat of the public backlash that occurred against genetically modified foods.

"The mistakes that happened with GM food and plant biology in general were that we did not engage with the ethical issues early enough in the process and the science developed ahead of the ethical and social discussion," said Nigel Brown, director of science and technology at the BBSRC. "We are keen to have these two processes in synchrony."

All the funded networks will include social scientists to help examine ethical issues and to gauge public perceptions.

The teams are also likely to tackle some of the technical problems that must be solved before the research can be used for major applications.

Alistair Elfick, principal investigator at the University of Edinburgh network, said the BBSRC scheme is "a very important first step" in getting UK academics to look properly at synthetic biology.

His team, which spans the universities of Edinburgh and Cambridge and Imperial College London, will discuss standardising the genetic building blocks used in synthetic biology.

These pieces of DNA, called BioBricks, can be ordered from a register of parts and put together to form a device. At the moment, the devices are fairly basic; for example Dr Elfick previously modified Escherichia coli bacteria to change their pH in the presence of arsenic, so that they can be used to test for contaminated water.

"These parts are only any good if everyone meets a common standard," said Dr Elfick, EPSRC advanced research fellow at Edinburgh. The team wants to devise a set of standards to describe how BioBricks will interact with each other in different combinations.

Also on the agenda for the team - which includes a lawyer, bioengineers, microbiologists, plant and cell biologists, a biotechnologist, computer scientists, a mathematician and social scientists - are issues of intellectual property and use of the components. BioBricks are shared by scientists rather like open-source software in computing, so the team will consider the effects of patenting key components and regulating the use of BioBricks.

"We are so far behind the way things are going in the States that this fund in itself won't catch us up, but it will get people to look closely at synthetic biology as an area and how they can contribute to that effort," Dr Elfick said. He believes that the UK has the infrastructure and expertise to lead Europe in the field in the very near future.


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