Posted: May 19, 2010

UK-Europe collaborations harness biology for engineering

(Nanowerk News) Four new projects, announced today, will develop biological methods that offer a new approach to antibiotic production, power generation for extremely small mechanical components, new classes of medicines and innovative techniques to study cell biology.
Teams comprising researchers from the UK and elsewhere in Europe will use synthetic biology to design systems with usefully engineered properties that are based on biology, or that use an engineering approach to pick apart a complex biological process.
The projects are funded through grants totalling £1.5M by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) under the EuroSYNBIO Programme, which is part of the European Science Foundation's European Collaborative Research Scheme (EUROCORES).
In addition to these four projects the EuroSYNBIO Programme is also funding a collaboration that is led by SINTEF in Norway and funded by five European funding agencies (see notes for details).
Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts said: "Synthetic biology is an exciting new area of research. Through sharing the UK's cutting edge bioscience knowledge and expertise with European partners, we can develop innovations which benefit the health and well-being of millions of people at home and abroad."
Professor Janet Allen, BBSRC Director of Research said: "Our understanding of biological systems is increasing all the time and sometimes we have observed a process in biology that chemists or physicists have struggled to engineer for years. Sometimes it is possible to mimic biology in the lab - to synthesise new antibiotics for example - but now that we have the tools to be able to harness useful biological processes we can do this sort of thing much more efficiently, at a lower cost, and with a greater potential to discover brand new products. These four projects open up some exciting possibilities for using a synthetic biology approach to answer important questions in biological sciences and its applications.
"Synthetic biology requires specialised approaches so it is extremely valuable for researchers funded by the UK Research Councils to have the chance to collaborate outside of the UK in this field. The opportunity for European partnerships that has been created by the EuroSYNBIO Programme will certainly help to advance this area of research."
Dr Lesley Thompson, EPSRC Director of Research said: "EPSRC believes that engineering has a crucial role to play in developing the synthetic biology research agenda and in maximising its potential benefit to the UK, so it is a priority programme for us. The UK is already proving influential in this area internationally, partnering with the US National Science Foundation and within the EU, shown by the fact that four out of the five projects funded under this Programme have UK partners."
"The ultimate ambition of the field is to extend the mastery of biological engineering to systems complex enough to deal with grand challenges such as the design, synthesis and delivery of novel therapeutic treatments, affordable and precise diagnosis of diseases, novel routes to vaccines, fuel production, bioremediation of pollutants, biocompatible carbon sequestration, and efficient manufacturing of biopharmaceuticals and biochemicals. We hope to transform biotechnology into a true engineering discipline with the corresponding properties of reliability and accuracy in design."
EUROCORES programmes enable researchers in different European countries to develop collaborations in areas where international scale and scope are required for top class science in a global context. The scheme provides a flexible framework for national organisations that fund or carry out research to join forces in supporting leading edge European research in and across all scientific areas. The national organisations support all aspects of the programme including scientific coordination, networking and research funding, which in the case of EuroSYNBIO has been led by BBSRC with co-funding from EPSRC.
In a project led by University of Technology in Dresden, Dr Richard Berry's team at the University of Oxford will also partner with teams from, University of Basel, University of Berne, ETH Zurich and Universidad Autonoma de Madrid as the NANOCELL consortium. NANOCELL aims to develop components for bio-nanotechnology, such as microscopic propellers driven by biological rotary motors that would allow components of tiny biochemical factories to move under their own power.
Dr Philip Holliger will lead a project based at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology Cambridge with partners from Catholic University of Leuven, University of Bonn and Genoscope in France. The project is to develop synthetic biology methods for producing medicines known as aptamers that are based on nucleic acids (such as RNA and DNA) that have characteristics that are not found naturally. These medicines can be developed such that they target specific RNA, DNA or protein molecules in the body for therapeutic applications. Aptamer technology is already used as a medicine for treating macular degeneration - one of the leading causes of blindness in older people.
In a project led by University of Technology Dresden, Professor David Sherratt's team at the University of Oxford will also partner with a team from Delf University of technology. The three groups of researchers will use an engineering approach to understand how proteins that control cell division behave inside a living cell, and in particular where exactly they are found and how they interact with other cell components.
In a project led by the University of Groningen, The Netherlands, Dr Nicolas Szita's team at University College London will also partner with teams from ETH Zurich, Eberhard Karls University Tubingen, University of Regensburg and the Organisation for International Dialogue and Conflict Management in Vienna. The researchers will work together to identify and then produce new antibiotics by integrating synthetic biology techniques with bioprocess engineering.
Professor Allen continued: "Synthetic biology is a fairly new discipline and represents some of the most forward-looking research in biological sciences at the moment. Together with EPSRC and Sciencewise ERC, BBSRC has recently been exploring the range of perspectives of the UK public on synthetic biology to ensure that the cutting edge research that is carried out in this field is supported by policies that reflect the views, concerns and aspirations of the people who fund it - the UK taxpayers."
Source: Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council