Biological Sciences

New Centre for Engineering Biology

A new Centre for Engineering Biology at the University of Edinburgh will build on existing strengths in Synthetic Biology, attracting new interdisciplinary collaborations and driving impact.

The Centre for Engineering Biology has evolved from SynthSys (the University of Edinburgh Centre for Synthetic and Systems Biology) and the UKRI-funded UK Centre for Mammalian Synthetic Biology. 

The Centre is a community of more than 50 research groups and 200 researchers spanning biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, engineering, informatics, medicine and social sciences. 

It is underpinned by specialist research facilities including Edinburgh Genome Foundry, the world’s largest automated DNA assembly platform, and EdinOmics, for mass spectrometry, metabolomics and proteomics analysis.

The Centre for Engineering Biology will take synthetic biology concepts and translate them into real world solutions. Researchers break down the genome into smaller parts to better understand how they contribute to how living systems work; they then either re-use or redesign these genetic parts to build new systems with a variety of novel and useful purposes.

Researchers can, for example, engineer bacteria with the ability to upcycle carbon or metal waste into high value chemicals,  or use gene editing tools to generate cells resistant to Lewy bodies and useful in the management of Parkinson’s disease.

Aligned with the UK Government’s National Engineering Biology Programme (NEBP) the centre will build on existing expertise and fundamental research, driving impact and strengthening the UK’s position as an international leader.

Growth and Opportunities

The Centre’s research is broad and deep, addressing a diversity of scientific questions with wide ranging impacts for society, industry, the economy and our planet.

Research will include the synthetic biology in which Edinburgh is already strong, but also:

  • Engineering of biology for 'green', or sustainable, chemistry, which will lead to more environmentally friendly ways of producing food, fuel, alternative materials and chemicals
  • Engineering of mammalian systems for a range of medical technologies, including cell therapies and tissue engineering

Examples of recent successes:

Green Chemistry

Plastic waste
Plastic waste. Getty Images: Sami Sent

Drs Joanna Sadler and Stephen Wallace have discovered that the common bacteria E. coli can be engineered as a sustainable way to convert post-consumer plastic into vanillin. They demonstrated how the technique works by converting a used plastic bottle into vanillin by adding their optimised E. coli strain to the degraded plastic waste.

Vanillin is the primary component of extracted vanilla beans and is responsible for the characteristic taste and smell of vanilla. It is widely used in the food and cosmetics industries, as well as the formulation of herbicides, antifoaming agents and cleaning products.

The study, published in the Journal Green Chemistry, will lay the foundation for further studies to maximize vanillin production towards industrially relevant levels.

The research was funded by a BBSRC Discovery Fellowship and a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship.

Microbial synthesis of vanillin from waste poly(ethylene terephthalate), Green Chemistry


Mammalian Engineering Biology

High-throughput DNA assembly system at the Edinburgh Genome Foundry
High-throughput DNA assembly system at the Edinburgh Genome Foundry

Cell therapy and gene therapies are transforming biomedical research and medicine, with remarkable successes in recent years in prevention, or potentially cure, for both genetic and acquired diseases and injury.

A recent award in Engineering Biology for cell and gene therapy from UKRI (£1.85 million) will support 11 research projects and early career researchers over two years.

The aim is to transform cell and gene therapies by implementing the emerging tools and concepts of ‘Engineering Biology’. 

Projects include:

  • The development of super-enhancers for expression of gene therapy payloads in specific cancer cell lines 
  • The engineering of cells for tunable control of inflammation in cell therapies. Uncontrolled inflammation is a damaging side effect of CAR-T therapy - an immunotherapy which involves collecting and using the patients' own immune cells to treat their condition. Uncontrolled inflammation can be detrimental to host tissue and prove lethal in some cases

Creating new solutions for the known bottlenecks in the production of Cell and Gene Therapies will enable new, inexpensive and safe therapies for future clinical applications.


My greatest hope is that the technologies we are developing now in engineering biology will have a huge impact on solving problems in medicine. I would like to see safe, effective and affordable cell and gene therapies routinely used in the clinic to diagnose and treat challenging, currently intractable, diseases.

Susan RosserProfessor of Synthetic Biology, School of Biological Sciences and School of Engineering

Cutting-edge facilities

The Edinburgh Genome Foundry has huge capacity to build genetic constructs using a highly automated robotic platform.

The recent acquisition of the £2 million Berkeley Lights Beacon System gives access to the only such instrument in an academic setting in Europe, and a unique opportunity to phenotypically screen thousands of individual engineered cells.

This combination provides a globally leading and unique opportunity for the UK to rapidly perform the design, build, test, learn Engineering Biology cycle.


History at a glance

The first centre for systems biology at Edinburgh was founded in 2007 through a BBSRC/EPSRC award led by Professor Andrew Millar. As one of six Centres for Integrative Systems Biology funded by the UK Government, it established Edinburgh as a centre of excellence in quantitative biology. 

The University established a Centre for Synthetic and Systems Biology (SynthSys) in 2012 to capture its growing research strengths in synthetic biology

In October 2015,  the UK Centre for Mammalian Synthetic Biology opened -  funded by the BBSRC/EPSRC/MRC as part of the UK Research Councils' Synthetic Biology for Growth programme. This Centre brought together research in synthetic biology as applied to medicine and healthcare.

A 2022 transition award in Engineering Biology for Cell and Gene Therapy Applications derives from and builds upon this investment.  It offers an opportunity to build a new phase of activities that harness and exploit recently developed underpinning tools for engineering mammalian systems into new Cell and Gene Therapy applications.

In November 2022 SynthSys was relaunched as the Centre for Engineering Biology to expand the  centre scope and attract new interdisciplinary collaborations at the interface of biology.

Further information

Centre for Engineering Biology

Genotype to Phenotype – discover the University of Edinburgh’s facilities

UK Centre for Mammalian Synthetic Biology