Enabling Tools & Technologies for Synthetic Biology

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of Chemistry


Synthetic Biology is a new discipline with the potential to create a wide variety of consumer products with applications in healthcare, biofuels, food, and materials. However, in order to realise its full potential, Synthetic Biology requires investment in fundamental research to develop basic protocols and technologies that allow researchers to quickly and easily make new biological parts and understand their behaviour in different conditions. We are an enthusiastic team of young researchers from different backgrounds in the Engineering, Physical and Biological Sciences who can use our combined expertise to tackle these problems. This project employs a flexible funding model that allows us to adapt our research program as new information becomes available. Initially we have chosen to focus on five proof-of-principle projects that tackle the first steps in developing Synthetic Biology applications. We hope to answer the following questions:1) How can we improve DNA synthesis so that biological parts can be made more efficiently?2) Are there measurements that can be made outside of cells that will predict what will happen when nucleic acids and proteins are inside cells?3) Can we create non-living systems to test biological parts that do not interfere with their function?4) What type of measurement instruments will aid us in testing the behaviour of parts in different conditions?We will begin by answering these questions for a simple test system and use what we learn to develop methods for increasingly complex systems composed of more parts. As part of our research program, we will also consider how our work impacts society and ensure that interested parties learn about it by a series of activities including networking meetings, workshops, and public engagement activities.Not only is this work applicable to all researchers in Synthetic Biology, who will be able to more efficiently create new systems, but parts of it will also benefit researchers in other disciplines. For instance, new DNA synthesis technology will benefit researchers in all biological and medical disciplines who will no longer need to perform tedious molecular biology, but will instead be able to purchase genes of interest, accelerating the pace at which new discoveries are made. This, coupled with the discoveries that become possible from synthetic biologists means our work has a wide ranging impact.

Planned Impact

The beneficiaries of this work range from the Synthetic Biology community who will gain new tools to further their own research, to researchers spanning the Biological, Chemical, Physical and Engineering Sciences who will also gain valuable tools for their research, through to the public, for whom these tools will enable the facile production of consumer products in healthcare, materials, food, and biofuels. The tools and technologies invented as a result of the proposed work will form the foundation of a methodology that will vastly improve the process by which Synthetic Biology is implemented for research and development. In turn, they will revolutionise the use of Synthetic Biology as a means for achieving scientific goals and will lead to the faster, more efficient generation of new parts, devices, and systems. These new biological entities constitute new intellectual property for the researchers and industries involved in their development and will have considerable economic value. The potential for societal benefit is vast. We expect that the benefits of this work will begin to be realised very quickly. Our initial pump-priming projects conducted in the first two years of the project will be significant scientific contributions on their own and will contribute new protocols and methods that can be implemented by other researchers nearly immediately. As new investigators, we are under significant pressure from our Institutions to establish a national and international reputation and to report scientific findings in publications as part of our probationary requirements. This means that we will be especially conscious about disseminating high-impact results as quickly as possible. The work proposed is highly interdisciplinary and will result in a significant broadening of the skill set of all involved, both investigators and PDRAs. These skills include many in significant demand across various employment fields. For instance, molecular biology techniques will be employed in most of the projects and these underpin research fields in Biological sciences, Medicine, and Bioprocessing. All of the staff involved in the project will also receive training in ethics and be taught to think about the wider implications of their research, a skill which translates across all disciplines. Outreach and dissemination activities will provide expertise in such transferable skills as public and interpersonal communication. Additionally, Synthetic Biology is projected to be an area of research growth in the coming years, making it likely that PDRAs will be able to employ their new skills in a growing employment market upon conclusion of the projects. A variety of activities are planned to ensure that impact is realised. We use our membership in various Synthetic Biology networks (e.g. SynBio Standards) and centres as a means of informing interested parties of new developments. We will publish our results in encompassing, high-impact journals and try to use open access journals where possible. We have set aside a generous budget to facilitate networking activities, conference attendance and public engagement. With the latter we will seek advice from our mentoring panel, specifically Dr Temple and Prof Jones on the best avenues for engagement.


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Kirk TV (2013) Oxygen transfer characteristics of miniaturized bioreactor systems. in Biotechnology and bioengineering

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Kirk TV (2016) Quantification of the oxygen uptake rate in a dissolved oxygen controlled oscillating jet-driven microbioreactor. in Journal of chemical technology and biotechnology (Oxford, Oxfordshire : 1986)

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Marques M (2019) Microfluidic devices towards personalized health and wellbeing in Journal of Chemical Technology & Biotechnology

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Marques MP (2017) Bioprocess microfluidics: applying microfluidic devices for bioprocessing. in Current opinion in chemical engineering

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Schäpper D (2010) Development of a single-use microbioreactor for cultivation of microorganisms in Chemical Engineering Journal

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Szita N (2010) Microfluidic approaches for systems and synthetic biology. in Current opinion in biotechnology

Description Gained experience in working with biomolecules, which facilitated follow-on research funding from the ERC.
Exploitation Route Sandpit funding provides experience for new investigators to plan collaborative grants, but the practicalities of delivering outcomes is difficult under such a funding model.
Sectors Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology

Description Transmembrane Molecular Machines
Amount € 1,500,000 (EUR)
Funding ID TransPoreT 
Organisation European Commission 
Sector Public
Country European Union (EU)
Start 09/2013 
End 08/2018
Description iGEM team leader 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact Justin Slikas was the team leader/mentor of the University iGEM team 2012. The team of interdisciplinary undergraduates (biologists, engineers, computer scientists) were awarded a gold medal and attended the Jamboree in Boston at MIT, USA. Resulted in publication for the student.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
URL http://igem.org/Main_Page