UK synthetic biology In 2012 Lord Willetts, promoted synthetic biology as one of the “Eight Great Technologies.” A roadmap for synthetic biology was created and six centers for synthetic biology research were established in UK universities. To support these centers, a network of DNA synthesis facilities, a doctoral training center, and an innovation and knowledge center were created. Here’s where synthetic biology in the UK is today, a mere seven years later. Image by The Imperial College Centre for Synthetic Biology
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A Game of Genomes: UK Synthetic Biology Research Centers

George R.R. Martin’s fantasy book series A Song of Ice and Fire, now a hit show in its final season, is based heavily on the rich history of the United Kingdom. Around the country today, ancient castles stand beside modern universities. Here, in specialized research centers, sit the rulers of the synthetic biology field, developing advanced technologies to fight the dragons facing a sustainable bioeconomy. From biomaterials more exotic than Valyrian steel to microscopic chemical factories, synthetic biology at times can seem unreal. But, as the saying goes, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

In 2012 the Minister for Universities, Research, Science and Innovation, Lord Willetts, promoted synthetic biology as one of the ‘Eight Great Technologies’. A roadmap for synthetic biology was created, which recommended that six centers for synthetic biology research (SBRCs) be established in UK universities. To support these centers, a network of DNA synthesis facilities, a doctoral training center, and an innovation and knowledge center were established. By 2016 many roadmap recommendations had been met, thanks in part to substantial government investment of over £300 million.

In 2018, the Government released its bioeconomy strategy with an overarching aim to grow the impact of this area to £440 billion by 2030, doubling of today’s value. Synthetic biology was highlighted as a key technology to achieve this goal. Now, newly established research centers around the country face new challenges in educating the next generation of researchers while facing a future outside the European Union. Whether you’re an all-knowing Grand Maester or know-nothing Jon Snow, let this be your guide to the UK’s academic centers of synthetic biology.

The Golden Triangle

The London-Oxford-Cambridge area, known as the Golden Triangle, represents the most industry dense region of the UK for synthetic biology, in large part due to the academic crucibles helping to forge new startups and spin-outs. London is very much the capital of innovation.

Imperial College, London has a long-standing reputation for synthetic biology and recently won funding to establish and co-host a new doctoral training center for synthetic biology. Professors Richard Kitney and Paul Freemont have been instrumental in shaping the UK’s synthetic biology strategy. They are now familiar names as co-leads of SynbiCITE and its successor SynbiCITE 2.0, the UK’s innovation and knowledge center for synthetic biology. The London DNA Foundry – an impressive automated platform to implement the Design Build Test Learn principles of synthetic biology – is also based at Imperial College. The Foundry and SynbiCITE have now moved out to Imperial’s shiny new White City campus in west London. SynbiCITE will host the SynbiTech conference on June 24-25 in London.

The University of Cambridge is home to OpenPlant, one of the six SBRCs established by the BBSRC and EPSRC research councils. OpenPlant aims to develop new tools for engineering plants. These tools are applied to ongoing plant engineering projects such as improving plant metabolism to deal with major challenges including climate change and soil degradation. OpenPlant boasts automated DNA assembly and makes use of Synthace’s Antha software to develop its bespoke DNA fragments. Like all the SBRCs, OpenPlant engages in interdisciplinary exchange, ethics, and participation in events such as iGEM

Reaching out

In Southwest England, the former Celtic fortress city of Bristol is now a stronghold of synthetic biology. BrisSynBio specializes in biomolecular design and brings synthetic biology approaches to engineering molecules, proteins and cells. The institute will be reaching out to Europe with the recently launched Max Planck Centre for Minimal Biology to help bolster the University’s ties to EU funding post-Brexit. This will build on the successes of BrisSynBio and delve into synthetic nanoscale biology with synthetic virus-derived programmable nano-devices. The University of Bristol is a natural home for synthetic biology, as it became host to the first doctoral training school for synthetic biology in partnership with Oxford and Warwick.

Warwick itself hosts another of the UK’s SBRCs: the Warwick Integrative Synthetic Biology (WISB) center. The center covers a variety of themes, most notably on predictive biosystems engineering. They are modelling new types of gene circuits in prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells to better understand why some gene circuits work where others don’t, as well as test their scalability. Computer aided design tools help build models from these experiments and the results feed into the projects of the other WISB themes. Other themes include engineering synthetic effectors of plants (synEffectors) and developing tools to engineer synthesis of complex bioactives in organisms like Streptomyces and yeast.

The Kings in the North

Those who know England are acutely aware that the North begins at the Watford Gap service station. The Midlands and North are home to the three remaining SBRCs and networks important for developing the bioeconomy. Coming up the M1 from London, Nottingham (of Robin Hood fame) is the first stop.

SBRC Nottingham is geared towards developing high-value molecules and fuels from waste carbon gases such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and methane. This center has a long history of synthetic biology on industrially relevant bacteria and has developed molecular tools to engineer difficult strains. SBRC Nottingham also has a reputation for outreach and encouraging responsible research and innovation. The University of Nottingham also hosts CCNet, a network of industrial biotechnology and bioenergy (NIBB) with a focus on single carbon substrates.

Further north in the misty rains of Manchester, SYNBIOCHEM focuses on novel methods to produce specialty chemicals through synthetic biology. These specialty chemicals are in the families of industrial and medically important alkaloids, flavonoids and terpenoids. The University of Manchester, where SYNBIOCHEM is based, will host a new doctoral training school in collaboration with Imperial College, London and University College London. UCL itself has a history of bioprocess leadership and hosts a NIBB on exploitation of algae, Algae-UK.

Across the Peak District and a little further north lies York, a cathedral city steeped in history from its Viking establishment. The University of York may not have an SBRC but hosts two of the UK’s six NIBBs: High Value Biorenewables (HVB) and Biomass Biorefinery Network. Both networks work towards the goals of the recent UK Government bioeconomy strategy and support synthetic biology research. It’s worth noting the leading bioeconomy experts in the UK, the National Non-Food Crops Centre, is based on the university campus too.

Further north, we reach Scotland. Based at the Centre for Synthetic and Systems Biology at the University of Edinburgh lies the final SBRC: the UK Centre for Mammalian Synthetic Biology. As the name suggests, this center focuses on medicine, including tunable control of cell lineage and epigenetics research in eukaryotic cells. The SBRC has state-of-the-art facilities for including the Edinburgh Genome Foundry, EdinOmics – a resource for quantitative biochemistry, and a LASER Enabled Analysis and Processing for imaging of live cells in-situ.

Besides the tenuous geographical reference, the UK today hardly resembles George R.R. Martin’s fictional world. In the synthetic biology community here, there is an atmosphere of cooperation and education, a willingness to engage with each other and with the public at large. The UK punches well above its weight, scientifically speaking, and the roadmap developed in 2012 has since become a blueprint for success. National centers working together have achieved so much more than the sum of their constituent parts. As the UK enters the next phase in its funding of synthetic biology research, the goal of doubling the bioeconomy in 15 years appears achievable. Academics are aware they need to work together and with industry to help the nation grow towards a sustainable and renewable future. In the face of precarious political winds, the mood is cautious. Winter is coming.

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David Kirk

David Kirk

David is a synthetic biologist and science writer interested in the bioeconomy, bio-based industry, and biopharma.

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