Engineering DNA with synthetic biology

High-throughput synthetic biology at the Earlham Institute.

Project summary.

Led by: Platforms & Pipelines Group

Start Date: June 2014

End Date: March 2016

Duration: 2 years, 9 months

Value: £1,903,000

Synthetic biology takes on the challenge of how to make the most of biological systems using paradigms borrowed from engineering disciplines. Making processes more efficient and more cost-effective by modifying or transferring functions from one biological system to another can impact everything from crop yield, to human health, to reducing the environmental impact of manufacturing processes.

The unit of currency in synthetic biology is the ‘biological part’ - a chunk of DNA with a specific function. Combining these units to create novel outputs is a standard molecular biology process that can be done by hand, providing you don’t need to make too many of them. However, synthetic biology relies on what we call a ‘design, build, test’ loop - and sometimes the things we wish to build and test can number in the thousands.

This grant has funded the development of a high-throughput, automated laboratory to produce synthetic biology constructs at huge scale. This supports the activities of researchers on the Norwich Research Park and beyond to scale their synthetic biology studies into new territory.


The focus of the facility is on construction of long, synthetic biology constructs, up to plasmid-like genomes and the generation of construct libraries that could be used for high-throughput screening of advantageous phenotypes.

The development of technical expertise in synthetic biology is initially focused on three areas of active research: novel antibiotics, exploitation of the yeast resources held at the Institute of Food Research and plant genome editing. 

A fourth area of interest is the design of predictive computational and mathematical models. The recently created Industrial Biotechnology Alliance (IBA) within the NRP serves as a catalyst to bring the research groups working in these areas together in a coherent technology development programme led by EI. 


John Innes Centre

Professor Giles Oldroyd, Christian Rogers, Andy Breakspear

Professor Oldroyds group is part of the ENSA consortium, a group invested in the production of new crops for African agricultural systems that are able to fix their own nitrogen through symbiotic relationships with microorganisms. It is their expertise and experience of delivering synthetic biology constructs to an active consortium of members that has allowed us to design a high-throughput laboratory at EI to service the kind of volumes that their consortium expects to deliver in the coming years. 

Impact statement.

Synthetic biology is one of the ‘Eight Great Technologies’ identified by the UK Government that support the UK’s science strengths and business capabilities. It is also one of the BBSRC’s priority areas under the ‘Exploiting New Ways of Working’ enabling theme. Tying together EI’s expertise in ‘reading DNA’ with sequencing technologies, with ‘writing DNA’ through synthetic biology is expected to generate new opportunities for collaboration with R&D groups, industry and our partners on the Norwich Research Park.