SPPI-NET: a Network for Synthetic Plant Products for Industry

Lead Research Organisation: Durham University
Department Name: Biological and Biomedical Sciences


Increasing oil-prices, security of supply and concerns over climate change are forcing a major re-think in how we can move from an industrial system reliant on fossil fuels to one which uses sustainable, renewable feed-stocks. Plant products are an obvious alternative current and future source of chemicals and materials, but in many cases are more limited in their applications and performance characteristics as compared with their synthetic counterparts. If we take a long term view, it would therefore be very desirable to combine the sustainability of plant based production with the tractability of synthetic chemistry in producing new generations of 'smart' renewable chemicals and materials for industrial production. The emerging science of synthetic biology, whereby engineering and physical science principles could be applied to rationally control metabolism presents a very powerful means of generating new bio-based products, including smart materials from plants. In our network, SPPI-NET, we propose to assemble the appreciable expertise in plant metabolism available in the UK with chemists and engineers to design new metabolic processes in plants which will give rise to novel Synthetic Plant Products for Industry (SPPIs). Future applications for SPPIs range from renewable biopolymers to novel fine chemicals and drugs. SPPI-NET will have very applied goals in working closely with industrialists on products which will make a significant impact on the long-term sustainability and future competitiveness of the UK's chemical industry. This will be achieved through building a community of trained scientists and fostering novel projects in basic and applied plant synthetic biology. As part of the network, we will also consider how the development of synthetic biology could impact on society and the public's perception of such new radical technologies.

Technical Summary

SPPI-NET has the ambition of developing the innovative science required to produce synthetic plant products for industry (SPPIs), which are chemicals which do not exist in nature, but which would offer improved performance characteristics as compared with natural products in industrial applications. SPPI-NET will combine the differing skills of plant scientists, synthetic chemists and metabolic modellers to develop new paradigms for engineering and regulating plants to produce synthetic products. The strategic impact of the network will be enhanced by identifying commercially relevant 'synthetic' targets through engagement with industry at the earliest stages of project development. A series of social science interventions will also ensure that key social and ethical considerations are characterised and integrated into R&D programmes. The network will be first developed through general scientific meetings aimed at capacity building. Subsequently, science outputs derived from its activities will be delivered through interdisciplinary synthetic biology research grant applications. Programmes will be developed initially through devolved discussion groups focussed on specific projects and risk research and then advanced to the stage of grant applications through organized SPPI-NET promoted 'sand-pit' workshops. The network will closely engage with the existing plant network GARNet and the Bioscience for Business knowledge transfer network. Dissemination of its work will take the form of a report/ review to be prepared for distribution to the research councils and learned societies at the end of year 2, identifying current activities and future prospects for plant synthetic biology at both the national and international level. The network will ultimately be sustained though industrial sponsorship and joint activities with learned societies. SPPI-NET will engage with other BBSRC networks in synthetic biology and take part in the international iGEM competition. Co-funding provided by EPSRC and ESRC under the Networks in Synthetic Biology initiative.


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Description We identified that while there was some negative public interest in synthetic biology applied to agrifood applications that there were many positive applications, several of which were of commercial interest.
Exploitation Route Through follow on grants taken forward by consortium members.
Sectors Agriculture

Food and Drink



Description The network has proven formative in promoting several companies to take up interests in synthetic biology based research in agrifood applications
First Year Of Impact 2010
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Chemicals,Energy
Impact Types Economic