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£1.1 million boost for synthetic biology research in Bristol

A Russula species of fungus

A Russula species of fungus Dr Andy Bailey

Press release issued: 12 November 2012

Scientists from the University of Bristol have been awarded a £1.1 million share of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)'s strategic Longer and Larger Awards in Synthetic Biology, announced today.

The award for an ambitious programme of research into natural biological 'factories' and their role in producing novel agrochemicals is worth a total of £4.5 million, shared between the Universities of Bristol, Cambridge, Manchester and Warwick.

Microorganisms produce many compounds, notably penicillin made by a fungus, which are beneficial to human health and agriculture.  Most microbes have the genetic capacity to produce very many more compounds than are actually observed in nature.  If their full potential could be activated, a strong flow of new compounds for use as medicines and agrochemicals would result.

The BBSRC-funded research will exploit these natural product assembly lines to discover and optimise novel agrochemicals.  The scientists will rapidly sequence the genomes of 40 microorganisms with the known ability to produce compounds beneficial to agriculture.  The clusters of genes responsible for the production of these compounds will be identified and manipulated to make new and hopefully useful products.

The project is a partnership between the four universities, with additional scientific and financial input from Syngenta.  Bristol’s expertise is focused in the School of Chemistry where Professor Russell Cox and Professor Tom Simpson FRS will lead a multidisciplinary team, including the groups of Dr Matt Crump and Professor Christine Willis, investigating how fungi make compounds with potential for use in agriculture.

The Chemistry team have built their internationally recognised success on collaboration with Dr Andy Bailey and Dr Colin Lazarus in the School of Biological Sciences and Dr Paul Race in the School of Biochemistry.

The latest award builds on previous BBSRC-funded research between the Bristol team and Syngenta using synthetic biology approaches to develop new herbicides from fungi.  Together the Bristol team have raised £3.2 million from research councils and industry over the past 3 years for innovative research into the biosynthesis of natural products from fungi and bacteria. The new BBSRC sLOLA funding brings this total to £4.3 million.

Professor Russell Cox said: “This is great news for the University of Bristol and for UK industry.  Synthetic biology offers real hopes for the rapid development of new products which will underpin agriculture and food security.  We plan to use our expertise in fungal chemistry to develop new products and more sustainable routes to them.”

Further information

Synthetic biology is an emerging area of research that can broadly be described as the design and construction of novel artificial biological pathways, organisms or devices, or the redesign of existing natural biological systems. (Source: UK Royal Society)

1. The announcement came from the Chancellor of the Exchequer in a speech made at the Royal Society on Friday 9 November 2012: http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/speech_chx_091112.htm