Innovating research, policy and education in synthetic and systems biology

Case Studies

Our Centre carries out a diverse range of research activities on wide ranging topics that have significant economic, environmental and policy impact. Some examples are highlighted below.

Protecting Lives in Africa


Model of Virtual Plant


Neonatal Sepsis




Arsenic pollutes many sources of drinking water in developing countries. Dr Chris French and colleagues have been synthetically modifying cells to create living biosensors that are highly sensitive to the toxin. They hope to develop cheap but sensitive diagnostics for contaminated water.



Professor Andrew Millar’s analysis of the complex molecular pathways that control plant circadian rhythms has led to the creation of a model of plant growth that accurately reflects the influence of varying environmental conditions. The model could equip the plant breeders of tomorrow with the tools to design crops better adapted to climatic change.



Professor Peter Ghazal and team has identified a signal consisting of 52 molecular characters - like a biological ‘tweet’ - that is specific to bacterial infection. The findings could help develop a test for bacterial infection in newborns, using a single drop of blood. The signals are written in biological code known as messenger RNAs that flags when babies are suffering from sepsis.

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Synbio Boost for Biofuels


Art Meets Science


Safer Landing Pads




Cellulose, found in plant material, is rich in energy and a great starting material for biofuel production. Professor Alistair Elfick, Dr Louise Horsfall and Dr Chris French, are exploring how you can combine different parts of cellulose hydrolysing enzymes to improve on Nature. They are also taking a similar strategy with lignin.




Synthetic Aesthetics was a project run by Professor Alistair Elfick and Dr Jane Calvert and Stanford University that brought together synthetic biologists, designers, artists and social scientists to explore collaborations between synthetic biology, art and design. The result was an incredible range of creative ideas that now form the topic of a book by the same name.



Researchers have been able to ‘cut and paste’ foreign transgenes, encoding commercially useful proteins, into hosts. However, often the foreign gene is lost over time, or not ideally situated for expression. To overcome these problems, Professor Susan Rosser is developing tools for so-called landing pads, that secure the gene in the chromosome and optimise expression.

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