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Details of Grant 

EPSRC Reference: EP/H019162/1
Title: Sandpit: The Programmable Rhizosphere
Principal Investigator: Haseloff, Professor JP
Other Investigators:
Wipat, Professor A
Researcher Co-Investigators:
Project Partners:
Department: Plant Sciences
Organisation: University of Cambridge
Scheme: Standard Research
Starts: 09 December 2009 Ends: 08 June 2013 Value (£): 972,909
EPSRC Research Topic Classifications:
Fundamentals of Computing Synthetic biology
EPSRC Industrial Sector Classifications:
Pharmaceuticals and Biotechnology
Related Grants:
Panel History:  
Summary on Grant Application Form
Humans have striven for centuries to control and exploit living organisms for their own purposes. Agricultural practices have been developed to maximise the yield of plants and animals. More recently, microbial systems have been manipulated to increase their utility in the food, biotech and brewing industries. Many of these changes have been achieved through breeding and chance selection for improved agronomic characters. Recent developments in genetic engineering have allowed scientists to apply precise perturbations that lead to beneficial changes in an organism. However, the complexity of biological systems makes it difficult to manually design and implement large changes that predictably produce an intended phenotype using conventional genetic engineering techniques. Our ability to synthesise DNA far outstrips our ability to design new genetic systems. Synthetic Biology holds the promise of rational design and reproducible fabrication of biological circuits that can be used to introduce a desired function in an organism. One of the main premises of this approach is that engineering principles should be applied to the design of modular circuits from well-characterized parts and components, using defined composition rules. A framework that enables this approach to the engineering of biology has, to date, been lacking. In this project, we propose to develop such a framework, and a unique library of new DNA parts. Specifically, we propose to tackle the problem of how cellular circuits in organisms (such as microbes and plants) can be designed in to self-organise and interact with other organisms in a predictable and robust fashion. To this end we will develop novel mathematical and computational approaches that automatically transform a quantitative description of a desired function into a circuit design that implements this function in bacteria. In addition we will generate a collection of DNA parts that will allow the construction of new channels of communication between different cell populations or organisms, and the pathways for symbiotic exchange of nutrients. There are many situations where improvements in the ability to regulate cells, and to form stable new ecologies, would be of benefit to humans. These range from applications in tissue engineering through to bioremediation, biotechnology and bioenergy. In this project we have chosen to focus on the relationship between plants and soil bacteria that normally live alongside the root system. We wish to engineer communication between a model bacterium and model plant, to allow negotiation and establishment of a new symbiotic relationship. The system would have many applications for improvements in sustainable agriculture, bioproduction and food security, such as improvements in soil use, pest resistance, weed suppression and creation of new crop plants capable of nitrogen fixation.
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Organisation Website: http://www.cam.ac.uk