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Posted: Apr 21, 2011
UC Berkeley launches Synthetic Biology Institute to advance research in biological engineering
(Nanowerk News) An alliance of top researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, has formed the UC Berkeley Synthetic Biology Institute (SBI), advancing efforts to engineer cells and biological systems in ways that promise to transform technology in health and medicine, energy, the environment, new materials, and a host of other critical arenas.
The new institute – aiming to create "an industrial revolution in biological engineering" – is launching a collaborative effort with its first industry member, Agilent Technologies Inc., a leader in measurement technologies and products to advance science and engineering research. Agilent is helping to initiate SBI research with a multi-year, multi-million dollar commitment, including early access to Agilent technologies through the active participation of the company's research scientists and engineers.
SBI will be an important link in a constellation of research centers focused on synthetic biology at UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), both of which have made the field a research priority. SBI is unique in its planned collaborations with leading companies, designed to translate leading research on biological systems and organisms efficiently into processes, products, and technologies to meet real-world demands.
"Berkeley has a history of leadership in emerging fields of research, and we are solidly invested in advancing synthetic biology," said UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau. "An exceptionally talented cadre of faculty is working at the interface of engineering and biosciences – there is tremendous momentum in this area. Our new Synthetic Biology Institute, with the foundational support of Agilent Technologies, extends our capacity for success in a fascinating, globally important field."
Led by Berkeley's College of Engineering and College of Chemistry, with the support of other campus units, the new institute addresses a wide range of critical societal needs. Researchers are employing synthetic biology to develop inexpensive, plentiful drugs for treating the world's most intractable diseases, viable methods for producing transportation biofuels from plants, microbes that target tumors and disease, and an array of other applications, including water purification, agricultural advances, environmental remediation, and the creation of functional new materials.
"Synthetic biology potentially can have as profound an impact in the 21st century as semiconductor technology had in the 20th," said William P. Sullivan, Agilent's CEO and president. "To get there, we need to engineer biological solutions that are scalable, reliable, and safe. This is precisely what the UC Berkeley Synthetic Biology Institute is addressing, and why Agilent is enthusiastic about providing infrastructure, expertise, and funding for this new institute."
The deans of the two UC Berkeley colleges that have launched SBI – S. Shankar Sastry of the College of Engineering and Richard A. Mathies of the College of Chemistry – lauded Agilent's substantial commitment to SBI and its leadership in supporting the new endeavor. They are working to attract other industry members who will follow Agilent's lead, lending both financial support and research-area expertise, while advancing each company's own business goals in developing synthetic biology.
SBI is broadly interdisciplinary, with 33 faculty and scientists from eight academic departments at Berkeley and four divisions at LBNL, spanning engineering, chemical sciences, and biology.
Key research goals are to deepen understanding of how biological systems work; develop robust, transferable tools to engineer biosystems reliably; and develop and disseminate standardized design rules for constructing biological components and systems for diverse applications. Analyzing and addressing the ethical and social impacts of synthetic biology are also a focus for the growing list of affiliated faculty.
SBI's ultimate aim is to "create an industrial revolution in biological engineering," said Matthew Tirrell, chair of Berkeley's Department of Bioengineering and SBI's founding director. "SBI seeks to bridge the gap between the small-scale, biological engineering of the present and industrial-level production by developing design tools and other infrastructure to produce synthetic biological systems reliably on a large scale."
The institute's researchers are drawing on Berkeley expertise in engineering, chemistry, biology, and other fields to create a toolkit for discovery, invention, and mass production of synthetic biological systems that could used by many industries, including energy, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, environmental protection, chemicals, materials, and electronics.
The leadership of SBI includes its director Adam Arkin, professor of bioengineering and director of the Physical Biosciences Division at LBNL, and associate director Douglas Clark, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and executive associate dean of the College of Chemistry. The institute builds on existing Berkeley research synergies with LBNL, the College of Letters & Science's Division of Biological Sciences, the College of Natural Resources, the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3), and the Energy Biosciences Institute.