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£4.5 million grant to discover and exploit novel natural product ‘factories’

A consortium of UK researchers led by a University of Warwick scientist has been awarded £4.5 million by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) to discover novel ‘factories’ responsible for the assembly of biologically-active natural products.

The agrochemical company Syngenta is contributing a further £500,000 to the project.

The grant is part of an unprecedented £20 million of funding for synthetic biology across several UK universities announced by the Chancellor George Osborne.

Professor Greg ChallisProfessor Greg Challis from the Department of Chemistry, in partnership with colleagues at the Universities of Cambridge, Manchester and Bristol, has been awarded a total of £5 million, which will enable the genomes of 40 microorganisms that are hypothesised to produce compounds with potential benefit to agriculture to be sequenced.

Clusters of genes responsible for synthesising these compounds will be identified and manipulated so that they can be harnessed to make useful products.

Professor Challis said: “Many microorganisms produce beneficial compounds, such as the antibiotic erythromycin and the pesticide spinosad, both made by harmless soil bacteria.

“But most microbes have the capacity to produce many more such bioactive compounds than are actually observed in typical laboratory cultures.

“If the full potential of these microorganisms can be realised, a strong flow of new compounds with potential to be developed into new medicines or crop protection products should be forthcoming.”

Synthetic biology aims to design, engineer or replicate biological systems, for example biosynthetic insulin, which first went on sale on 1982. Seventy per cent of the insulin sold worldwide is produced in this way.

Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts said: "Synthetic biology could provide solutions to the global challenges we face and offers significant growth opportunities in a range of important sectors from health to energy. However the commercialisation of basic science is largely untapped.

“This investment is part of the Government’s commitment to making the UK a world leader in the research and application of synthetic biology. It will help to ensure that academics and industry can realise its full potential.”


Further Information

For further information please contact University of Warwick press officer Anna Blackaby on 02476 575910 or 07785 433155 or

The Government’s announcement can be found here