Synthetic biology

The application of engineering tools and principles to design and engineer novel biologically-based parts, devices and systems that do not exist in the natural world, as well as the redesign of existing natural biological systems for useful purposes.

This research area has developed substantially over the last Delivery Plan through targeted investments seeking to increase the UK's competitive advantage. It remains of strategic importance, with EPSRC playing a vital role in ensuring that Synthetic Biology's potential can be realised. Across the Delivery Plan, we will look to capitalise on existing investments and infrastructure with a view to exploiting the manufacturing/scale-up potential.

A continued focus will be to ensure that engineers in particular, along with mathematicians and physical scientists, are fully engaged and play a leadership role in developing the future of Synthetic Biology. Research in this area is central to addressing current and future national challenges related to sustainability and resource efficiency.

Standards, Metrology and Responsible Research Innovation are three areas of significant importance to growing the potential of Synthetic Biology, due to their importance in transforming research into viable industrial technologies. By the end of the Delivery Plan, the community should have embedded them into research practices as standard.

As this research area develops, the technology becomes more mature and moves closer to application, process engineering aspects (e.g. scale-up) will become increasingly important. Throughout the Delivery Plan period, we will work with the community to stimulate interdisciplinary collaboration with the process and manufacturing communities, and will encourage the community to tackle these challenges, to exploit any potential opportunities that arise.1-4

Over the Delivery Plan, we will also work with the community and other important partners to identify suitable challenges and areas of strategic importance within the portfolio as they arise.


The UK is judged second only to the US when it comes to Synthetic Biology, however in terms of policy we are seen to be a world leader (Evidence source 1,2).

This portfolio has grown significantly over the last Delivery Plan, attributable to targeted investment by EPSRC (and other funders) in research, infrastructure and people. This recent investment, in conjunction with partners, has developed a strong infrastructure base underpinning the community(e.g. the Synthetic Biology for Growth initiative).

Access to state-of-the-art equipment and expertise has been enabled through establishment of: six multidisciplinary Synthetic Biology Research Centres (SBRCs); seven UK DNA Synthesis Centres; and a Synthetic Biology Innovation and Knowledge Centre (IKC).

Critical investments are in place to safeguard the future skills pipeline necessary to capitalise on this nascent technology area, in the form of Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs) in Synthetic Biology and Bioprocess Leadership.

The recently published, government-endorsed strategic plan indicates that the area remains of strategic importance to the UK and contains a strong focus on future application of any technology developed (Evidence source 2). This research area has potential to address a diverse range of important socio-economic challenges (e.g. in healthcare, agriculture, novel materials, biofuels/energy, bioremediation/clean water and manufacturing). The UK bioeconomy is currently estimated to be worth around £150 billion Gross Value Added, with potential to increase by a further £40 billion over the coming decade (Evidence source 1-3).

Investment in collaboration with the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) has been a real success. To ensure that the community thrives and quality is maintained, this cross-working should continue.

Clear links exist across the EPSRC portfolio, key interactions include Chemical biology and biological chemistry, Biological informatics and Complexity science. Links to Manufacturing the Future and Process Systems: Components and Integration will be increasingly important as the research area progresses towards implementation of techniques and scale-up.

This area has great potential to deliver impact under the Productive Nation, it also aligns indirectly to the Healthy Nation. In particular there is potential to make a significant medium/long-term contribution towards the following Productive Nation Ambitions:

P1: Introduce the next generation of innovative and disruptive technologies

Research in this area has the potential to make a significant contribution as a platform technology and could revolutionise a wide range of industrial sectors.

P2: Ensure affordable solutions for national needs

Successful research in this area has the potential to implement new processes for the production of a wide array of products. In concert with other research areas, this platform technology provides an opportunity to develop affordable processes for future production of medicines, biofuels and fine chemicals.

P5: Transform to a sustainable society, with a focus on the circular economy

This research area will enable development of sustainable feedstocks and open up opportunities to develop long-term sustainable processes (e.g. producing fuel from waste).

  1. Technology Strategy Board, A Synthetic Biology Roadmap for the UK (PDF), (2012).
  2. Synthetic Biology Leadership Council, BioDesign for the Bioeconomy (PDF), (2016).
  3. HM Government, Eight Great Technologies, (2013).
  4. National Research Council, Industrialization of Biology: A Roadmap to Accelerate the Advanced Manufacturing of Chemicals, (2015).

Other sources:

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)
Visualising our portfolio (VoP) is a tool for users to visually interact with the EPSRC portfolio and data relationships.

EPSRC Support by Research Area in Synthetic Biology (GoW)
Search EPSRC's research and training grants.

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: Karen Davies
Job title: Portfolio Manager
Organisation: EPSRC
Telephone: 01793 444374