Synthetic biology

Synthetic biology is the design and engineering of biologically based parts, novel devices and systems as well as the re-design of existing, natural biological systems. It is an emergent field that has the potential to deliver important new applications and improve existing industrial processes. The field draws on a combination of existing disciplines, each contributing a unique perspective to the challenge of adopting and applying engineering concepts to the complexity and versatility of biological systems. This priority aims to contribute to building the next generation of synthetic biology researchers.

Recent publication of A Synthetic Biology Roadmap (July 2012), highlights the UK’s need to build a skilled, energised and well-funded UK-wide synthetic biology community. Furthermore, it identified the need to build, maintain and develop the skills base and to enhance interdisciplinary graduate training. In light of this, EPSRC and BBSRC wish to support high quality Centres for Doctoral Training that span the two Councils’ interests.

Synthetic biologists come predominantly from biology/biotechnology, and engineering, but they also come from chemistry, physics, mathematics, and computer science. Therefore, the overall package of postgraduate training must build the next generation synthetic biology community with (a) depth within core disciplines and the ability to work in cross-disciplinary collaboration; and (b) high-level, broad interdisciplinary synthetic biology expertise. Training should integrate broader societal and business contexts, in particular awareness of responsible research and innovation, to ensure that students are prepared for successful research careers in academia and industry, but are also equipped to take on other roles in the wider economy.

To ensure the future supply of skilled people, the training environment must provide students with the required balance of biology, biotechnology, computing, modelling and engineering skills along with the computational and experimental approaches needed to design, construct and control complex biological systems.

Furthermore, students should graduate with the capacity to anticipate and understand the industrial, economical and ethical issues associated with this developing field. Integrated internships (similar to those within the BBSRC Doctoral Training Partnerships) will be looked on favourably as a key delivery mechanism for providing this wider experiential learning and formed part of the training recommendation of the UK roadmap.

As appropriate it would be expected that any Centre in Synthetic Biology will engage and partner with biotechnology, pharmaceutical, energy, food, healthcare and chemical companies as well as suppliers of biotechnology tools, reagents, and services in order to enhance the relevance and training experience provided to students.

Centres in this priority area will be a joint funding partnership between EPSRC and BBSRC.