Synthetic biology is an exciting discipline that links science, engineering and computing. Helen Carmichael reports on how the subject is inching its way into UK universities

Synthetic biology is an exciting discipline that links science, engineering and computing. Helen Carmichael reports on how the subject is inching its way into UK universities

In the US, synthetic biology research (sometimes called synbio) is backed by considerable investment. For instance, the National Science Foundation contributed $16 million (?11 million) to the University of California at Berkeley’s synthetic biology centre launched in 2006.

Now research groups are following suit in Europe and Japan, and the technology is spreading. The RSC is among bodies calling for major UK investment to support synthetic biology, in part through multidisciplinary research centres. The BBSRC (Biotechnology and biological sciences research council) has already set up six systems biology centres and the EPSRC (Engineering and physical sciences research council) has pledged both to fund grants and to underpin one or two universities in synthetic biology to the tune of ?3-5 million.

The very nature of synbio makes it hard to pigeonhole and fit into traditional university department structures. At University College London (UCL) for example, synbio is currently embedded in the biochemical engineering department. 

But UCL is also involved in synbio through its Institute for Structural and Molecular Biology. John Ward, a professor in the department, works with Irilenia Nobeli from the department of crystallogrophy at Birkbeck to lead the SynBion Network, which explores what biologically designed elements could achieve in the fields of electronics, optics, opto-electroincs and magnetics. The SynBion Network is funded largely by BBRSC and EPSRC and also includes five other UK universities: Manchester, Warwick, Birmingham, Cambridge, and Imperial College London.

Social issues of synbio 

December 2008 saw the launch of the new Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation led by Imperial College London in partnership with the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), part of EPSRC’s effort to push the UK to the forefront of this field.  

Initially, researchers at the centre will focus on developing standard systems. This will involve modifying DNA, inserting it into cells, and cataloguing what the cells do. The aim is then to assemble devices for use in a range of applications.

LSE will also train researchers at the centre in the social, ethical, legal, and political issues surrounding this emerging field. These include examining the social and economic impacts of biotechnology, and developing regulation and governance practices.

The Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation is part of Imperial’s Institute for Systems and Synthetic Biology: a multidisciplinary, multi-faculty institute focused on developing novel approaches to research in biology, medicine, and engineering. 

The institute implemented an MRes and a PhD programme in systems and synthetic biology in 2008/2009. A final year option in synthetic biology is already available to undergraduates. 

Meanwhile, the University of Cambridge, UK, aims to establish an undergraduate course in synthetic biology. A growing network of Cambridge researchers have been encouraged to collaborate through the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition, held annually at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US. 

Scientists from eight departments and three nearby institutes now work together for the Cambridge iGEM project. In 2007, the Cambridge team was rewarded with gold awards and a prize for the best BioBrick. Cambridge is also participating in a new Amgen scholars programme, offering summer research opportunities for undergraduate students. Projects in the field of synthetic biology are available for 2009.

The Edinburgh Centre for Synthetic Biology has participated in iGEM since 2006, when its team won first prize for ’best real world application’ for a novel biosensor to detect arsenic in drinking water. 

The Edinburgh team went on to win gold medals in both 2007 and 2008. The centre is headed by Mike Tyers, professor of systems biology, who is also director of SULSA, the Scottish Universities Life Sciences Alliance. 

Scottish synbio 

Synthetic biology at Edinburgh is a co-operative venture including researchers mainly from chemistry, biological sciences, biomedical sciences, engineering & electronics, and informatics, as well as from the ESRC Innogen Centre and the ESRC Genomics Forum.  

Edinburgh offers an MSc in synthetic biology, currently an option in bioinformatics, which will soon become a stand-alone course. The subject is also covered as part of Edinburgh’s biotechnology honours program.

The Synthetic Biology Standards Network is also based in Edinburgh, and includes researchers from Newcastle, Cambridge, Glasgow and Imperial College. The University of Glasgow’s biology multi-disciplinary undergraduate iGEM team scooped a gold medal in 2007 and first prize in the environment track for its self-powering environmental pollution biosensor.

Scottish Enterprise, the European Union, and the University of Glasgow have sponsored the Glasgow team, adding support to this new field in both Scotland and Europe. 

The funding for synbio is appearing, and the excitement around the research is certainly there. It will be interesting to see how the field blossoms in Europe.

Helen Carmichael is a freelance science writer based in Vancouver, Canada