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m of collaborative robots whirr, not assembling cars or steel, but the building blocks of life itself – DNA. This is the Foundry, a £2m centre which opens today in Imperial College London. It plans to industrialise the process of preparing DNA for use in synthetic biology.

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The automated lab can run thousands of experiments simultaneously, saving biotechnology researchers from wasting hours with pipettes and Petri dishes. That DNA will be turned into biological ‘devices’ – mini production centres for antibiotics, vaccines and even fuels.

We want to have a very standardised, almost open-source model where people can access the data from the Foundry as part of the process of synthetic biology,” said Professor Paul Freemont, head of molecular biosciences at Imperial College. “Synthetic biology is an extension of biotechnology. It’s about harnessing biology in a much more efficient way, to do stuff for us.To manufacture things, to make things, using biological cells as essentially little factories or using them even as biosensors.”

The Government has identified synthetic biology as one of eight ‘great technologies’ where the UK can excel. “We’ve been using biology for 5,000 years or more,” Professor Freemont said. “What we’re doing is now much more detailed. We’re beginning to really design and engineer biological systems. Which is, I think, a natural evolution, but it is a transformation as well. This is the future of how we’re going to build and manufacture really complex molecules like drugs, pharmaceuticals, even commodity chemicals.

Synthetic biology has been booming since the decoding of the human genome in 2000 – especially over the last three years, thanks to a new technique for gene editing called CRISPR.

Chloe Gui, the co-founder and CEO of Aranex, is using CRISPR to create non-allergenic peanuts so that the one in 100 people in the UK who are allergic can eat them. “The great thing about CRISPR is it’s much easier than technologies used in the past,” she said.

At a time when more traditional manufacturing industries in this country are in crisis, synthetic biology is one area where the UK is a genuine world leader. It’s an industry of the future – one that will hopefully arrive soon.

Vennila Arivoli
Vennila is one of BioTecNika's Online Editors. When she is not posting news articles and jobs on the website, she can be found gardening or running off to far flung places for the next adventure, armed with a good book and mosquito repellant. Stalk her on her social networks to see what she does next.