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Southampton to share in eight million pounds for DNA research

Published: 30 January 2015

The University of Southampton is to share in eight million pound funding to help create the DNA starting blocks for synthetic biology.

PhD student Waraporn Ratsameepakai using a mass spectrometer
Student using mass spectrometer

Synthetic biology is a new way of doing science that applies engineering principles to biology to make and build new biological parts, devices and systems. It’s being used to make biological ‘factories’ that make useful products like medicines, chemicals and green energy, as well as tools for improving crops. Examples include biofuels and anti-malaria drugs made by microbes like yeast or bacteria. Synthetic biology has been identified by the UK Government as one of the ‘Eight Great Technologies’ in which Great Britain can be a world leader.

The University has been awarded £469,000 through a partnership with the Universities of Edinburgh, Cambridge, Liverpool, Oxford, Bristol, Birmingham, Imperial College and The Genome Analysis Centre.

Ever larger pieces of DNA, such as genes and gene clusters, are required for synthetic biology, and making these can be a tedious and slow process. In this project, partners will analyse DNA made by modern ultra-high throughput chemical methods and optimise the process. They will also explore new ways to make large pieces of DNA.

At Southampton, the funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) will provide major new equipment to improve the quality and reduce the cost of DNA synthesis. This investment complements the leading research into nucleic acids by the University’s Institute for Life Science (IfLS).

Dr Jonathan Watts, a lecturer in Chemical Biology at the University of Southampton, said: “The mass spectrometer we will buy with the funding will be one of the best in the UK. We will also be able to buy equipment to synthesise and purify pieces of DNA using both standard and novel approaches. One specific goal is to develop ways to reduce the scale of DNA synthesis, which will reduce the cost and environmental impact of making synthetic genes.”

The funding forms part of a larger £40m investment for UK synthetic biology, announced by the Business Secretary Vince Cable.

He said: “From materials for advanced manufacturing to developing new antibiotics and better tests for diseases, this new £40 million investment is in one of the most promising areas of modern science.

“It will see our world class researchers using bacteria to produce chemicals to make everyday products like toothbrushes and credit cards, which are currently made from unsustainable fossil fuels. Not only will this help improve people’s everyday lives in the future but it will support long-term economic growth.”

BBSRC Chief Executive, Jackie Hunter, said: “Through previous investments BBSRC, along with funding partners, has been able to position the UK as a world leader in synthetic biology. This new package of investments will ensure that the UK maintains this leadership position and continues to drive the potential of synthetic biology to contribute to the economy and society.”

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