Engineering Fellowships for Growth: Development of SimCells as building blocks for synthetic biology

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Engineering Science


The vision of this Fellowship is to establish an unprecedented new bioengineering platform for synthetic biology - the SimCell (Simple and Simulated Cell) that performs advanced bioengineering functions in an easy-to-use, safe-to-handle, and reliable-to-build manner. The aim of this fellowship is to develop SimCells as programmable 'bio-robots' and establish the foundation for standardised engineering applications of SimCells. SimCells have the potential to open up a new frontier, enabling the development of new and smart materials for bioprocessing and manufacturing, bioenergy, healthcare, agriculture and environmental monitoring and protection. Unlike a living cell, a SimCell is a chromosome-free and simplified cellular bio-robot; its 'hardware' is the optimised 'shell' of a cell which enables specific cellular properties; and its 'software' is a piece of DNA which delivers the defined functions. The optimised shell and simple DNA in SimCells enables them faithfully delivering most of their energy and resources to a specific function without interference of unwanted pathways and networks in a natural cell. A SimCell is a non-dividing, biochemically active, designable and simplified agent, which can be continuously produced by engineered parent cells, but which cannot reproduce itself, making it more acceptable to public opinion than living genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
The Fellowship is truly revolutionary, transforming current synthetic biology based on living cells or cell-free system by providing an intermediate building block between them and taking advantages of both. It directly addresses three of five great challenges of synthetic biology by establishing novel SimCells as predictable, simple, safe and programmable bio-robots. The application of SimCells would lead to address one of challenges in 'the third industrial revolution' - bioenergy.
To demonstrate SimCells as miniature factories with high energy transfer efficiency, a bio-transformation system will be designed to produce biofuels (such as ethanol and alkanes) from H2O and CO2, mediated by SimCells and powered by electrons and sunlight. This will be built on the established synthetic pathways developed by WH's previous research and patents. The outcomes of this Fellowship will set a bioenergy benchmark to which other long-term projects will aspire, and will also create the infrastructure for a wide range of applications.

Planned Impact

The beneficiaries of SimCells research are wide ranging and there are a variety of routes in which to impact on the bioeconomy. SimCells will be developed as user-oriented 'bio-robots' with novel and controllable functions. Since they are non-living organisms, SimCells are a safe and robust enzyme system, which potentially can be purchased by end-users and used as building blocks by 3-D printers to build novel devices.
The strategic route to implement the impact is to establish a UK academic-Industry SimCell research club to rapidly disseminate the technology to the relevant companies in the UK, and expand the impact of the project to overseas market. The objectives of this SimCell club are:
1) To identify key area of SimCell applications;
2) To establish a pathway to commercialisation;
3) To promote making prototype products;
4) To explore opportunity of Intellectual Property (IP) issues;
5) To spin out a company by working with Sheffield Research and Innovation Services
The primary route for dissemination and acceleration of impact will be via the SimCell club, open source platforms in order to extend the reach and accessibility of research. This fellowship will enable the establishment of a SimCell bank, which allows users to submit and share data on the performance and characterisation of SimCells. Beneficiaries will be able to utilise the SimCells building blocks in developing bespoke solutions to engineering challenges. Usage of the research outputs will be encouraged via presentations, seminars and lectures at other institutes and related conferences. Exploitation of SimCells in conjunction with industrial partners and sponsors, will begin with applications in specific engineering challenges to ensure the high-value uptake of the SimCells platform.


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Berry D (2015) Tracking heavy water (D2O) incorporation for identifying and sorting active microbial cells. in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

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Chen JX (2019) Development of Aspirin-Inducible Biosensors in and SimCells. in Applied and environmental microbiology

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Fan C (2019) Defensive Function of Transposable Elements in Bacteria. in ACS synthetic biology

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Fan C (2020) Chromosome-free bacterial cells are safe and programmable platforms for synthetic biology. in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

Description A SimCell is a simple and simulated cell whose chromosome has been removed and replaced with designed DNA. SimCells are continuously produced by designed parent cells, and its 'hardware' is the optimised 'shell' of a cell, which enables specific cellular properties; its 'software' is a piece of designed DNA which delivers defined functions.
A SimCell is non-dividing, biochemically active, designable platform for synthetic biology. It is a new type of cell system falling between a living cell and a cell-free system, taking advantage of the machinery of living cells on the one hand, and of the safe, controllable and predictable performance of cell-free in-vitro gene expression systems on the other.
SimCells can be regarded as smart bioparticles, which have a broad application to medicine diagnosis and treatment, biofuel production, biosensing for environmental pollutions, and bio-inks for 3D cell printing.
Exploitation Route Five ways to disseminate the findings:
1. Seminar and conference talks. For example, I will give a talk on a Gordon Conference: Renewable Energy: Solar Fuels to demonstrate that how to apply SimCells for biofuel production.
2. Journal paper publications. Two papers are in preparation to report the findings.
3. Workshops. Oxford will organise a few workshop to discuss industry collaboration focusing on SimCell application.
4. Industry application. We are in the process of application of Simcells for controlling stem cell differentiation by collaborating with regenerative medicine centre in Oxford.
5. Working with public media. We will meet public media such as New Scientist to report our findings.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Chemicals,Energy,Environment,Healthcare,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology

Description 1. Two biosensor strains have been adopted as national standards for toxicity detection in contaminated water including fresh water and seawater. The standardisation is at the stage of waiting for final approval. 2. Oxford University and investors have set up a biosensor spin-off company: Oxford Molecular Biosensors ( 3. SimCells (simple and simulated cells) to develop retonoic acid for control stem cell differentiation. Regenerative Medicine Centre (Funded by Medical Industry), The Institute of Biomedical Engineering, Oxford University, is going to apply this novel system for drug delivery.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Creative Economy,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology
Impact Types Societal,Economic,Policy & public services

Description Associate Editor of Synthetic biology for Microbial Biotechnology Journal
Geographic Reach Multiple continents/international 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
Impact I served as an associate editor of Microbial Biotechnology from 2019. I am responsible for synthetic biology section. Typical contributions consist of short pieces (1000-1500 words, at most one display item) reporting new concepts, raising questions (including those challenging conventional wisdom or established tenets) and outlines for new applied and basic endeavours. It influences the policy makers, provides education to the public and stimulates the discussion in academia.
Description National standard for toxicity detection in contaminated water
Geographic Reach Asia 
Policy Influence Type Citation in other policy documents
Impact Chinese government has adopted two biosensors as national standards for ocean contamination monitoring.
Description Training Oxford Synbio DTC students
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Description Engineering new capacities for solar energy utilisation in bacteria
Amount £4,248,968 (GBP)
Funding ID BB/M000265/1 
Organisation Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2015 
End 01/2020
Description CAS Bioenergy collaboration 
Organisation Chinese Academy of Sciences
Country China 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Prof Jian Xu is Director of BioEnergy Directorate, Qingdao Institute of BioEnergy and Bioprocess Technology (QIBEBT), Chinese Academy of Sciences, has established a formal collaboration with me on bioenergy research. They will characterise novel gene from algae, which will be introduced into our SimCells to biofuel production.
Collaborator Contribution He has visited Oxford in Dec 2015. He has paid my travelling, accommodation cost (about CYN20K) to visit China and give a talk in his institute. He would like to pay and get a licence for this technology.
Impact We are in the process of commercialization collaboration.
Start Year 2007
Description Collaboration with Baojun Wang on SimCell biosesors 
Organisation University of Edinburgh
Department School of Biological Sciences
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Our SimCell biosensor can be applied to contaminant detection without issue of genetically modified organisms (GMO). SimCells can be used as novel and safe chassis for gene circuit for chemical sensing systems and applied to the problems of the real world.
Collaborator Contribution Dr Baojun Wang is a research fellow at Edinburgh University, who is developing gene amplifier to enhance biosensor sensitivity. We collaborate to apply the gene amplifier to SimCells which can be further developed as biosensor for the detection of drinking water contamination.
Impact We are in the process of paper preparation.
Start Year 2016
Description Collaboration with Prof Neil Hunter 
Organisation University of Sheffield
Department Department of Music
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution This research is also involved in BBSRC funded sLoLa project: Engineering new capacities for solar energy utilisation in bacteria (BB/M000265/1). Prof Neil Hunter, FRS is a PI of this project. We plan to use SimCells as novel catalysts for light energy harvesting and make products.
Collaborator Contribution I am a Co-I of this BBSRC sLoLa project (BB/M000265/1) which offers a postdoc researcher (jointly with Prof Neil Hunter at Sheffield University) and cover some of my time.
Impact We are currently prepare three research papers.
Start Year 2010
Description Collaboration with Prof Petra Oyston in DSTL 
Organisation Defence Science & Technology Laboratory (DSTL)
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Confidential
Collaborator Contribution Confidential
Impact Confidential
Start Year 2017
Description Partnership with Tsinghua University 
Organisation Tsinghua University China
Department School of Enviroment
Country China 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Oxford Suzhou Centre for Advanced Research (OSCR) and Research Institute for Environmental Innovation (Suzhou), Tsinghua University (RIET) have formally signed a MOU. OSCAR is the first oversea institute of Oxford University and I am involved in OSCAR as a PI, working on synthetic biology application to environment biotechnology.
Collaborator Contribution RIET is a secondary institute affiliated to Tsinghua University. It is mainly engaged in environmental science and innovation activities, with its overall objective to build a comprehensive research & development and science & technology service institute with international influences, which is to help Tsinghua University's development strategy of "building a world-class discipline of environment", driven by the institutional innovation, based on the major scientific and technological research and development, and oriented with the grounding of industrialisation of research results. My team in OSCAR developed a series of biosensors. RIET provides research facility, scientists and industrial partners working on biosensor application to environment. RIET is also working with OSCAR for joint project, exploiting research funding in China.
Impact We have jointly standardalised two biosensors for toxicity detection as Ocean standards in China.
Start Year 2018
IP Reference  
Protection Trade Mark
Year Protection Granted
Licensed Yes
Impact This is the first report to develop SimCells (simple cells) as novel chasses for synthetic biology. SimCells were developed in this work which inherited machinery from living cells and contained designed gene circuit for biosensing function. It demonstrated that SimCells can be potentially regarded as 'artificial cellular machine' with various functions. SimCells as programmable chasses open a new frontier for synthetic biology and its broad application without GMO (genetically modified origanisms) issues. It inspired a few companies around world including China, US and Switzerland. For example, after reading this paper, Flagship Pioneering (FP) Ltd in the US has contacted. Associate Director of FP Dr Hok Hei Tam and his colleague have visited me and Oxford University Innovation (OUI). A consultancy agreement and know-how transfer has been signed by OUI. FP has set up a company- FL62, and invested (>$1M) a project based on this SimCell technology.
IP Reference  
Protection Trade Mark
Year Protection Granted
Licensed No
Impact I and Prof Ian Thompson have founded an Oxford spin-off company- Oxford Molecular Biosensors ( (OMB). Recently OMB has received the funds from an international company - Sembcorp and Innovate UK to develop COD biosensors. The core technology of OMB is based on the technology developed in this grand funded research.
Company Name Oxford Molecular Biosensors 
Description OMB is offering a range of products and services, including several biosensors with differing functionalities, greater robustness and sensitivities than those currently on market. The company has also developed a platform technology which enables rapid design and construction of bespoke biosensors tailored to the specific needs of the customer. A further development is a portable device which will enable biosensor assessment to be made on site and in remote locations. License agreements to employ our biosensors, training courses for their application and data analysis as well as consultation on best measures for remediation of contamination are also available. 
Year Established 2017 
Impact Provide service to Primark, Bangladesh government water project.
Description Research Expo St Edmund Hall 2017 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The second St Edmund Hall Research Expo will take place on Saturday 25 February 2017 (6th Week), 12:30-5:00pm. Once again, the College will showcase the wide diversity of research being undertaken by its students and academics - from undergraduates to Fellows - via sessions of short 'Teddy Talks' (all aimed at a non-specialist audience) and three rooms of interactive displays and exhibits.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description Talk at Gordon Conference (GRC): Renewable Energy 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Invited to give a presentation about SimCells developed in Oxford, funded by this EPSRC grant.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016