A £10m centre will help translate the emerging field of synthetic biology into industrial applications.
The new Innovation and Knowledge Centre (IKC), to be called SynbiCITE, will be based at Imperial College London and led by Professor Richard Kitney and Professor Paul Freemont and will act as an “industrial translation engine” to integrate university and industry based research in synthetic biology into industrial process and products.
Funding for the centre was announced at the SB6.0 Conference today by Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts and the project will involve researchers from a further 17 UK academic institutions and 13 industrial partners, including the research arms of Microsoft, Shell and GlaxoSmithKline.
Kitney, from the Department of Bioengineering at Imperial, said: “Synthetic Biology could be the next ‘industrial revolution’ for the UK, where tiny devices manufactured from cells are used by us to improve many facets of our lives.
“From producing new, more sustainable fuels to developing devices that can monitor or improve our health, the applications in this field are limitless.”
SynbiCITE will be funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research and the Technology Strategy Board. It will receive initial grant funding of £5m, with a further £5m to be awarded over the next two years.
Willetts said: “Synthetic biology has huge potential for our economy and society in so many areas, from life sciences to agriculture. But to realise this potential we need to ensure researchers and business work together. This new IKC will help advance scientific knowledge and turn cutting edge research into commercial success.”
The conference also saw the announcement of nearly £1m in Government funding for a project, known as Sc 2.0, by an international consortium to create an artificial version of yeast by 2017.
Prof Freemont and his team from the Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation at Imperial have been given £970,000 to build and test one of the organism's 16 chromosomes - Synthetic Chromosome XI, which contains more than 700,000 DNA components.
While American geneticist Craig Venter created a synthetic bacterium genome from scratch three years ago, if the international project is successful it will be the first time scientists have built the whole genome of a "eukaryotic" organism whose DNA is stored within a nucleus.
Freemont said: "It's a massive leap forward. Yeast is a eukaryote; it's a much more complicated cell. These are chromosomes that mimic the chromosomes in our own cells."
But he made it very clear this was not a first step towards attempting to build Frankenstein-like human life in the laboratory.
"We're not wild west cowboys," he added. "The idea of us going out and synthesising human chromosomes is just ridiculous. It's not going to happen."
Scientists plan to use the synthetic yeast genome as a research tool and microbial "factory" for producing new antibiotics.
"Yeasts have evolved over millions of years, making energy from sugars and excreting alcohol and carbon dioxide gas," said Freemont.
"Humans have adapted these organisms to our advantage, using their by-products to make alcoholic drinks and risen baked goods. Now we have the opportunity to adapt yeasts further, turning them into predictable and robust hosts for manufacturing the complex products we need for modern living. "