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Helmholtz Centres and universities develop innovative biological systems

The Helmholtz Synthetic Biology Initiative will fund Germany's first national research network in the field. Researchers from the Helmholtz Centres in Heidelberg, Karlsruhe, Jülich, Munich and Braunschweig are working closely with scientists from Heidelberg University and the University of Freiburg. The research programme includes technological resources and practical projects in the health and key technologies research fields. The new Helmholtz initiative will receive €3 million in funding from the Initiative and Networking Fund over the next few years. The participating institutions will also provide the same amount from their own budgets. The start-up phase, which has initially been funded until 2014, aims to lay the foundations for sustainable research structures. The idea is to then include these structures in the Helmholtz Association's programme-oriented funding and to continue using them as a cross-cutting topic in the health and key technologies research fields.Responsible research that takes society's ideas into account

Responsible research that takes society's ideas into account

Drew Endy from Stanford University gives a simple and pragmatic definition of the aim of synthetic biology: "Make biology easy to engineer" (www.openwetware.org/wiki/Endy:Research). In other words, it is about finding ways of using biology to build things. To do so, researchers connect biological building blocks (e.g. promoters and protein domains) to form more complex circuits, such as enzyme cascades and genetic circuits. These "biological devices" are then installed in existing organisms ("the chassis"), where they perform new functions. Recent far-reaching breakthroughs in synthetic biology include engineering the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae to synthesise the antimalarial drug precursor artemisinic acid (Ro et al., 2006) and generating Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0, the world's first organism with a synthetic genome. The latter was achieved by Craig Venter and his research team (Gibson et al., 2010).

But although the field offers great potential, experts in Germany and abroad are increasingly discussing their concerns about the possible risks. They want to find ways to protect against the risk of misuse (biosecurity), against possible risks to human health and the environment (biosafety) and against socio-economic risks (König et al., 2012); there is also the matter of traditional ideas about life (Boldt and Müller, 2008). Therefore, a separate research project that will accompany the initiative has been tasked with addressing the ethical and social issues involved and with identifying how to develop and govern synthetic biology in a responsible way. The researchers working in the initiative want to develop a repository for biological parts (the Helmholtz Repository of BioParts, HeRBi) in order to strengthen the synthetic biology community. By providing a public database of new, standardised biological building blocks, it should be easier for synthetic biologists to use the "molecular toolbox" in the future.

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