UK's commercial DNA foundry a step on path to 'bioeconomy'

By Phil Taylor

- Last updated on GMT

iStock/JVisentin
iStock/JVisentin

Related tags: Biology

The opening of the UK's first synthetic biology foundry promises to usher in a new era of cheaper and more accessible DNA synthesis.

The foundry at Imperial College London - which is used to produce the DNA needed to develop customised micro-organisms - officially opened for business in April and is the first commercial-scale facility of its type in the UK.

It is operated by the SynbiCITE public-private partnership, which represents 27 universities and 36 companies, and is intended to sit at the centre of a national network of DNA prototyping and production units.

The unit will use high throughput, robotic assembly lines to programme cells that can be used to create specialised, renewable materials with applications in a number of industries, including healthcare.

In February, SynbiCITE published a roadmap - Biodesign for a Bioeconomy - its first for four years, which places a much greater emphasis on the translation of synthetic biology discoveries into commercial applications.

The roadmap - which is backed by the UK government - sees synthetic biology spawning £20bn-worth ($29bn) of extra revenue for the UK economy by 2020-2030, according to SynbiCITE's co-director Prof Richard Kitney.

SynbiCITE also says that the foundry uses open-access and sharing software which allows researchers to speed-up innovation by sharing their biodesign protocols with different labs around the world.

"The foundry has been created and built to operate as a ‘cloud lab’ to support synthetic biologists across the UK​," according to SynbiCITE's chief executive Stephen Chambers. The unit is "for everyone in the business of synthetic biology and who can use synthetic biology … in their business​."

UK Minister for Life Sciences George Freeman recently highlighted what he said was the importance of biosciences to "feed, fuel and heal​" the world's expanding population over the next 50 years.  In 2012 the UK government identified synthetic biology as one of 'eight great technologies' in which it believes the UK can develop a leading position.

The West London campus could in time develop into a cluster of synthetic biology companies, much like the Tech City cluster for IT companies in the east of the city, he suggested.

SynbiCITE is holding a conference​ in December focusing on the application of engineering to biology through synthetic biology and systematic design, focusing on elements such as robotics and automation; feedback and control; microfluidics and process engineering.

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