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Synthetic biology

This area concerns the application of engineering tools and principles to the design and manufacture of biologically based parts, devices and systems that do not exist in that natural world, as well as the redesign of existing, natural biological systems. Not included here is systems biology research, which is captured within the complexity portfolio area.


Synthetic biology is a nascent technology with the potential to be transformational in a large number of key application areas which address a diverse range of important socioeconomic challenges, e.g. Healthcare, Agriculture, Novel Materials, Bio-fuels/Energy, Bio-remediation/Clean Water, and Manufacturing. For this reason it is of high strategic importance, and imperative that the UK exploits the opportunities arising to develop a world leading synthetic biology sector (UK Roadmap for Synthetic Biology (PDF 1MB))1. The UK is adjudged to be second only to the USA (with respect to publication output1) which has led the way with synthetic biology. In part, this is because EPSRC has made some high quality investments in the area, specifically the EPSRC Science and Innovation Centre at Imperial College London and transformative research in partnership with the US National Science Foundation.

EPSRC will grow the investment in this research area, relative to others in the portfolio, to capitalise on investments already made. A balanced portfolio of discovery and challenge-led research will be built to ensure that the UK remains at the forefront as the field develops and international competition grows. Advancing the field to commercialisation requires developing engineering-led systematic design protocols that will enable the integration of modular biological parts into systems for a targeted end-use. Delivering this will require engineers and biologists to work together with social scientists, mathematicians, computer scientists, chemists and life-scientists to address the technical, social, ethical and economic challenges in a holistic manner.

The future focus will be to ensure that engineers in particular, along with mathematicians and physical scientists, are fully engaged and play a leadership role in taking forward synthetic biology research in the UK. EPSRC will continue to work with other research councils (e.g. BBSRC, ESRC) and public sector funders (e.g. Technology Strategy Board) to develop the interdisciplinary skills, infrastructure and research programmes needed to advance the field towards application for UK benefit, with due regard to ethical, social and regulatory considerations. To achieve this, EPSRC will invest in leaders and engage in best-with-best collaborations across national boundaries, i.e. with the USA, and the growing economies of India, and China.

1 Contextual information is regularly reviewed for each research area, this information became available after the original rationale was published.

Current investments

For information on current EPSRC investments in this research area, please see Grants on the Web (GoW).

EPSRC investments on 01 April 2011

Synthetic biology is 1.4% of EPSRC's total investment in Engineering related research areas.

The proportion of funding in Synthetic biology by EPSRC theme on 1st April 2011.

Number of EPSRC Grants 1, 2 Value of Grants 1, 3
27 £12.5M
  1. Based on number and value of current grants (excluding training grants) on 01 April 2011.
  2. Grants are classified using one or more research area. The number of grants listed does not reflect the proportion assigned to different research areas and thus all grants of some relevance to the research area are counted.
  3. Grants are classified using one or more research area. The value of investment does reflect the proportion assigned to different research areas.

Current major EPSRC research investments include:

  • ICSTM - CSynBI: Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation (Science & Innovation award)
  • Key groups at Edinburgh University, Glasgow University and Cambridge University - as the research is inherently multidisciplinary the 'groups' often comprise researchers from Life Sciences, Chemistry, Computer Science and Engineering departments

EPSRC Centres for Doctoral Training of relevance


Luke Davis