Plant scientists in Cambridge and Norwich have been awarded £12 million funding for a new UK synthetic biology centre – OpenPlant.Inspired by the way open source data has stimulated innovation in computing, OpenPlant will create a climate of openness in the exciting technology field of synthetic biology – helping young researchers and entrepreneurs develop and share new tools and libraries of plant DNA.
OpenPlant is a collaboration between the University of Cambridge and the John Innes Centre on Norwich Research Park. The funding will be shared equally between the two institutions.
It is one of three new UK centres for synthetic biology announced today by science minister David Willetts. Over the next five years the three centres will receive more than £40 million in funding from the BBSRC and EPSRC.
Sitting at the boundary between sciences, synthetic biology uses engineering principles – including standardisation and modularisation – to make new biological parts and systems.
Using knowledge about the biological properties of plants and microbes, synthetic biology can improve their use as factories, food and fuel. As well as helping improve crops across the world, synthetic biology could be used to develop new medicines, chemicals and green energy sources.
David Willetts said: “Synthetic biology is one of the most promising areas of modern science, which is why we have identified it as one of the eight great British technologies of the future.
“Synthetic biology has the potential to drive economic growth but still remains relatively untapped and these new centres will ensure that the UK is at the forefront when it comes to commercialising these new technologies.”
While US researchers are at the cutting edge of synthetic biology in microbes the UK has the edge in plants. To fulfil its potential, however, researchers and small companies need greater freedom to operate, freedom that in key areas of computing has driven innovation, and created new jobs, software and products.
According to Dr Jim Haseloff of the University of Cambridge: “The field needs a new two-tier system for intellectual property so that new tools including DNA components are freely shared, while investment in applications can be protected.”
“This will enable greater participation in innovation for sustainable agriculture and innovation.”
Dr Nicola Patron, head of synthetic biology at The Sainsbury Laboratory, another key partner organisation in Norwich, added: “Current intellectual property practices threaten to stifle innovation in plant technology.
“By creating DNA resources and tools that are free to use, OpenPlant will foster the kind of innovation seen at the emergence of other new technologies such as microelectronics and computer software.”
OpenPlant unites two leaders in the field. The University of Cambridge has played an important role in many key scientific discoveries in biology, from the structure of the double helix to next generation DNA sequencing.
The John Innes Centre is a world-leader in plant and microbial research that benefits farmers, the environment, humans and economies worldwide. Scientific discoveries about synthetic DNA systems will feed future innovation by researchers at both institutions.
JIC scientists have also pioneered innovative engagement between scientists and the public such as through the Science, Art and Writing (SAW) initiative.
Social scientists on the OpenPlant project will help map feasible technical approaches to challenges, such finding a less energy-intensive alternative to nitrogen fertilisers, considering the economic and social implications for different scenarios.
Key initiatives for the new centre include:-
Scientists at the John Innes Centre will discover how Chinese medicinal plants such as the coneflower create natural colours and compounds with beneficial effects. The discoveries can be applied to refine their properties and scale up production.
Plants as factories
A new system for producing useful compounds in plants, such as proteins to make vaccines, is currently used by over 200 academic institutions around the world. The technology developed at the John Innes Centre is licensed to commercial organisations, including Canadian company Medicago, who have used it develop a vaccine against swine flu.
Crops use photosynthesis to convert sunlight and water into carbohydrates and the way they do this divides them into either C3 or C4 plants. C4 plants are around 50 per cent more efficient than C3 plants but major crops such as rice are C3. By discovering how C4 photosynthesis works and how it evolved, it might be possible one day to engineer a major change to crop productivity. Microscope images available.
A simple test bed for engineering
The liverwort, Marchantia polymorpha, is a descendant of the earliest terrestrial plants. Its small size, rapid growth, simple architecture and genome make the plant a powerful new model for Synthetic Biology. OpenPlant scientists will use the system to develop new DNA circuits and tools to visualise and engineer new forms of plant growth.
• PHOTOGRAPH SHOWS: Yang Zhang with the medicinal coneflower at JIC