Chemical biology and biological chemistry

Development of novel chemical tools and technologies for the understanding of biology and the synthesis of biological and biologically active molecules. It also covers biomimetic chemistry, synthetic methods that mimic biochemical processes; including producing simplified chemical models of complex biological systems.

This research area covers applications of EPSRC Chemical Biology and Biological Chemistry, in all biological contexts, ranging from agriculture to animal and human biology. However, proposals predominantly focused on a biological or medical/disease question do not fall within this research area and are covered by other research councils.

The UK has a strong research base in Chemical Biology and Biological  Chemistry. However, in recent years the centre of gravity has shifted increasingly into the biological and medical space. Research outputs from the Life Sciences Interface and other initiatives have been taken forward leaving a gap that has not been filled by new chemical biology and biological chemistry research. We will work with the community to ensure that vital enabling research capability is grown by encouraging new physical sciences innovation in Chemical Biology and Biological Chemistry to safeguard the long term health of this research area in the UK. Without this, we risk losing our world leading position and generating a bottleneck in important tools and fundamental understanding.

The health of this area also has long-term implications for application-led research fields for which Chemical Biology and Biological Chemistry is critically relevant (for example, healthcare technologies, synthetic biology, life and medical sciences) as recognised by the Technology Touching Life (PDF) priority. Research in this area is central to addressing current and future national challenges related to sustainability and resource efficiency.

Novel and adventurous engineering and physical sciences research is actively encouraged and will be supported at a level appropriate to the growing community.

By the end of the current Delivery Plan period we aim to have:

  • Supported the community to pursue highly adventurous and interdisciplinary research in the field of Chemical Biology and Biological Chemistry
  • Clarified EPSRC's role in a complex funding landscape, working even more collaboratively with other Research Councils and funders to ensure strategies are distinct and complementary to support this area
  • Worked with the community to encourage the development of the next generation of platform technologies to enable the pursuit of new academic challenges and exploration of previously inaccessible chemical and biological space
  • Invested in interdisciplinary training, particularly at the early-career stage, to enable researchers to develop their track record and raise their profiles, thus developing the next generation of research leaders in this cross-disciplinary and collaborative area.

Chemical Biology and Biological Chemistry research in the UK is frequently highlighted as world-leading and generates high quality research outputs including publications and platform technologies that underpin the life and medical sciences - vital components of the UK economy (Evidence source 1,2,3,4). There has been considerable growth of the chemical biology community in the UK as a result of a number of funding and networking initiatives as well as the movement of researchers from other academic fields such as synthetic organic chemistry (Evidence source 1,2).

The funding landscape for chemical biology is diverse and this research area interfaces with the remit of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and Medical Research Council (MRC) in addition to a number of other funders; EPSRC is a relatively small part of this landscape (Evidence source 1). Despite the growth in the community, the critical mass of research activity has shifted away from innovative and novel engineering and physical sciences research (Evidence source 1).

The majority of the EPSRC portfolio for this area is in interdisciplinary doctoral training. A number of key institutions within the EPSRC portfolio have hired chemical biologists and biological chemists with a large proportion of these being at the early career stage (Evidence source 1). Researchers have also moved into this research area from connected fields such as organic chemistry and analytical science (Evidence source 2). EPSRC's Chemical Biology and Biological Chemistry portfolio represents investments in a large number of universities and includes critical mass and leadership in some key interdisciplinary centres. The infrastructure needs of this portfolio are diverse, correlated with the broad spectrum of research that chemical biology encompasses. There are requirements for multi-user equipment and high performance computing consortia (Collaborative Computational Project for Biomolecular Simulation [CCP-BioSim] and High-End Computing Consortium for Biomolecular Simulation [HEC BioSim]) that rely on hardware infrastructure such as ARCHER and specialist national facilities such as those at The Diamond Light Source.

Chemical Biology and Biological Chemistry is a key underpinning area of capability for the health and life sciences (Evidence source 4,5,6) and the need to facilitate this has been acknowledged through the Technology Touching Life priority. The chemical and pharmaceutical sector contributed over £15 billion to the UK's GDP in 2015 and in the same year the UK life science industry had an annual turnover of £56 billion (Evidence source 6). Following the changes to the pharmaceutical landscape in the UK and an increase in the number of Small and Medium Enterprises there has been a move in favour of increased collaboration to share expertise and equipment. Academic stakeholders are well engaged with the private sector and have attracted increasing leverage from project partners over the last Delivery Plan period.

This research area contributes particularly to the following Ambitions within the Resilient, Productive and Healthy Nation Outcomes:

R3 - Manage resources effectively and sustainably

Novel chemical biology feeding through into agricultural technologies to provide a new toolkit to mitigate against pests, diseases, drought and other abiotic or non living chemical and physical factors such as high soil salinity.

P1 - Introduce the next generation of innovative and disruptive technologies

P2 - Ensure affordable solutions for National needs

Fundamental studies into the structure, function and synthesis of biological and biomimetic molecules underpin the development of novel solutions to healthcare, defence and food supply. Advances in biocatalysis and scale up is also required to deliver transformative and sustainable solutions for industry.

H3 - Optimise diagnosis and treatment

H4 - Develop future therapeutic technologies

Research in Chemical Biology and Biological Chemistry provides the knowledge and tools that underpin a spectrum of new developments in the fields of healthcare and pharmaceuticals, including probes, theranostics (the integration of therapeutics and diagnostics), imaging technologies, sensors and solutions for synthetic biology and building blocks for new biomaterials. This research area is also of fundamental importance to the pharmaceutical industry in developing new means of tackling global health challenges such as antimicrobial resistance.

  1. EPSRC, (2016), Focus group in Chemical Biology
  2. Research Excellence Framework, Chemistry Sub-Panel (UOA8), (2014)
  3. Professor Patrick H Maxwell FMedSci, The Maxwell Report 'The importance of engineering and physical sciences research to health and life sciences' (PDF), (2014)
  4. HM Government, Report 'Life science competitiveness indicators (PDF)', (2015)
  5. BBSRC, Vulnerable skills and capabilities report, (2015)
  6. Chemical Industries Association UK, Chemical and pharmaceutical industry facts and figures (PDF), (2015)

Research area connections

This diagram shows the top 10 connections between Research Areas within the EPSRC research portfolio. The depth of the segment relates to value of grants and the width of the segment relates to the number of grants shared by those two Research Areas. Please click to see the related Research Area rationale.

Visualising our Portfolio (VoP)
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EPSRC support by research area in Chemical biology and biological chemistry (GoW)
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Contact Details

In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Name: Shahidur Chokdar
Organisation: EPSRC
Telephone: 01793 442613