In a move that could potentially revolutionise major UK industries and help the country meet its serious social and environmental challenges, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) has announced an unprecedented £20m worth of synthetic biology projects.
The funding was announced by the Chancellor George Osborne at the Royal Society.
The six projects focus on biotechnology and advanced bioenergy and will use synthetic biology to investigate major global challenges, such as producing low-carbon fuel and reducing the cost of industrial raw materials. The funding will also help to build a world-leading synthetic biology research community in the UK.
Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts said: “Synthetic biology could provide solutions to the global challenges we face and offers significant growth opportunities in a range of important sectors from health to energy. However the commercialisation of basic science is largely untapped.
“This investment is part of the Government’s commitment to making the UK a world leader in the research and application of synthetic biology. It will help to ensure that academics and industry can realise its full potential.”
Led by Professor Nigel Minton, The University of Nottingham researchers in the Centre for Biomolecular Sciences are working to maximize the use of sustainable forms of energy by harnessing the ability of certain bacteria to ‘consume’ the gas carbon monoxide (CO) and convert it into useful chemicals and fuels.
CO is an abundant resource, and a waste product of steel manufacturing, oil refining and other industries. If we can use this CO to provide more sustainable energy, it would also result in a reduction in fossil carbon emissions.
Professor Minton said: “CO is an abundant resource and a waste product of industries such as steel manufacturing, oil refining and chemical production. Moreover, it can be readily generated in the form of Synthesis Gas (‘Syngas’), by the gasification (heating) of forestry and agricultural residues, municipal waste and coal.
“By allowing the use of all these available low cost, non-food resources, such a process both overcomes the “Food versus Fuel” issues associated with traditional ethanol production and circumvents many of the challenges associated with ‘second generation’ biofuels.
“The success of our project is dramatically enhanced by the participation of our commercial partner LanzaTech, a world leader in industrial gas fermentation. ”
Some routes to biofuel generation through biological systems have relied on conversion of plant materials, such as sugars and starch. This has led to concerns over competition with use of these products as food, and a refocusing of efforts on so-called ‘second generation’ biofuels.
The researchers will gain a better understanding of how the biofuel-producing ‘Clostridium ljungdahlii’ functions and use synthetic biology approaches to broaden and extend product streams in an industrialized setting, without the need to consume valuable food or land resources.
The grants are part of BBSRC’s Strategic Longer and Larger Awards scheme, which give world-leading teams the time and resources to address areas of key strategic importance. The grants form a network of investment in synthetic biology for the Knowledge Based Bioeconomy.
The awards were supported by contributions of nearly £3m from industry and three of the awards were co-funded in partnership with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), which contributed nearly £2m.
The announcement comes following the government’s response to the Synthetic Biology Roadmap which sets out a shared vision for realising the potential of synthetic biology in the UK. The response welcomed recommendations to develop an internationally recognised world-leading synthetic biology research base and to deliver research responsibly and in a coordinated way.
Professor Douglas Kell, Chief Executive of BBSRC, said: “This funding is a major step in exploring the capacity of synthetic biology to develop useful applications. The investment recognises the important role that synthetic biology can play in addressing many of the grand challenges we face, and in helping to provide future prosperity.”