Four of the UK’s Research Councils have awarded a total of £890,991 to seven new networks in synthetic biology that will, they say, “allow UK researchers to build links across institutions and discipline boundaries to form a true synthetic biology community”.

The bulk of the funding is coming from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (£390,000 apiece), while the Economic and Social Research Council has contributed £76,000 and the Arts and Humanities Research Council £35,000.

The synthetic biology networks involve the Universities of Bristol, Durham, Edinburgh, Nottingham, Oxford and Sheffield as well as University College London and Birbeck College. The networks will use the awards to build multidisciplinary links between different laboratories and develop the tools and language required for synthetic biology research.

According to BBSRC director of science and technology Professor Nigel Brown, the UK “has world-class bioscience and engineering communities and our aim is to build capacity for a world-leading UK synthetic biology research community quickly”.

With applications ranging from medicine to bio-energy, biosensors, clearance of hazardous waste and ‘biological’ computers, synthetic biology is described as “the engineering of biology: the synthesis of complex, biologically based, or inspired, systems which display functions that do not exist in nature”. Specific pharmaceutical applications might include synthetic versions of pathogenic viruses as a basis for vaccine development, metabolic engineering or advanced DNA sequencing.

The involvement of the ESRC and the AHRC in the initiative highlights the “strong social and ethical dimension” to the new networks, the BBSRC noted.

“Synthetic biology has huge potential to help us both further our understanding of natural biological systems and also develop new biologically-based systems to tackle future challenges,” Professor Brown commented. “The four Research Councils working together in this initiative shows that the future of synthetic biology in the UK relies not only on bringing together biologists and engineers but also on ensuring that the societal issues are considered from the start.”