Scientists get £4 million to make ‘designer bacteria’

Published: 15 November 2012

Scientists at the University of Glasgow have been given £4 million from the UK Government to develop tools for the production of useful strains of micro-organisms.

Scientists at the University of Glasgow have been given £4 million from the UK Government to develop tools for the production of useful strains of micro-organisms.

The money will help researchers in the Institute of Molecular, Cell and Systems Biology to simplify the process of designing, building, testing and modifying biological systems like bacteria for a variety of useful purposes.

A new field of science, Synthetic Biology aims to engineer or replicate biological systems to help address major global challenges such as producing low-carbon fuel, reducing the cost of industrial raw materials and producing new pharmaceuticals.

The funding is part of a larger pot of £20m set aside by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and distributed through the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council to help make the UK a world leader in research and application of synthetic biology.

An example of such bio-engineering is biosynthetic insulin for the treatment of diabetes, which first went on sale in 1982 and now accounts for 70 per cent of the insulin sold worldwide.

Professor Marshall Stark, who is leading the project, said: “Synthetic biology aims to apply engineering principles to the development of biological systems.

“Microbial cells, for example yeast or bacteria, can act as microscopic factories to make a wide variety of substances, including feedstocks for the chemical industry, additives for the food industry, antibiotics and pharmaceuticals.

“Yeast, for example, is used to convert sugar into alcohol through fermentation and is how we produce beers, wines and spirits. Although each cell is tiny, we can easily grow them on a massive scale, and thus obtain large amounts of products.”

In order to produce micro-organisms that perform a specific function to make the desired product, the cells have to be programmed and this is done by the introduction of DNA sequences – or genes – to an existing micro-organism. The added genes encode instructions to make ‘machines’, called enzymes, needed for the cell ‘factory’.

Prof Stark said: “Getting the right genes into the cells in the right order is currently very difficult.

“Our research programme aims to develop new, much improved ways of introducing the genes and then experimenting with the addition of extra genes, deletion of existing ones, swapping one gene for another slightly different one, changing the order in which the genes are strung together, and so on, in order to get the right substances and the maximum productivity from our microbes.”

The technology being developed by the scientists at Glasgow will use a remarkable family of enzymes called recombinases which act as molecular ‘scissors and glue’ for DNA. These will allow the researchers to cut the strands at precisely defined positions and ‘paste’ a new sequence into the gap.

In another application of the technology, the team hopes to be able to ‘teach’ cells to count, and to keep a record of the number they have counted up to in their DNA. This could be very useful; for example, for knowing the number of times a cell has divided, or the number of times it has been exposed to a chemical substance.

Prof Stark said: “By taking a ‘design-build-test-modify’ approach, and using modular components, we hope to create organisms that will help produce valuable chemical substances economically, in high yields and with low environmental impact, or to carry out beneficial chemical transformations such as neutralization of pollutants in waste water.”

The applications of designer micro-organisms are many: from bacteria that increase the efficiency and yield of biofuels to the creation of plastics from chemicals through microbial fermentation rather than fossil fuels. Bacteria could also be used to create new antibiotics to tackle superbugs.

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 will help to ensure that academics and industry can realize its full potential.”

The £4m for the project, which is being led by Prof Stark and his colleagues Dr Sean Colloms and Dr Susan Rosser, will also fund researchers at Aberdeen, York and Nottingham Universities.


For more information contact Stuart Forsyth in the University of Glasgow Media Relations Office on 0141 330 4831 or email

Notes to Editors

More information on the projects being funded can be found here:

The Synthetic Biology Roadmap is available here along with the Government’s response to it here.

First published: 15 November 2012