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Life, re-engineered: new milestone in the emerging field of synthetic genomics

Ecoli under the microscope

When MRC researchers achieved a new milestone in the emerging field of synthetic genomics, LifeArc set this early-stage technology on a secure commercial path.

Dr Jason Chin and colleagues created the first viable organism with entirely re-engineered DNA, in an achievement that has been hailed by their peers as a landmark in the emerging field of synthetic genomics. The team, based at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge, produced the largest artificially-created genome to date, and the most complex: Syn61, a strain of E. coli with a fully synthetic genome.

In addition to the pure scientific value of this work, there is scope for interesting industrial applications. E. coli is already widely used in research and in the production of biopharmaceuticals (accounting for 30% of all approved therapeutic proteins), alcohols, biofuels, organic acids and many other products.

Against this background, LifeArc’s team carried out a market analysis to shed more light on the commercial potential. Although research in the lab has been underway for many years, development of this new technology for practical use is still at an early stage. This is a crucial time to secure intellectual property rights, along with funding to take the technology closer to market.

Protecting intellectual property

The creation of Syn61 was a long and arduous task, based on techniques that the LMB team developed over time.

The first step for LifeArc was to assess whether the work was patentable and whether patent rights would help boost the commercial offering in this case. Following this due diligence, LifeArc worked with Dr Chin’s group to file a priority patent application that covers Syn61 and the molecular alterations that led to its development.

Looking ahead, there are various commercial possibilities to explore. One of these opportunities is the potential to overcome existing issues with the industrial use of E. coli, such as infection of cultures by bacteriophage (phage), which can destroy productivity and the quality of valuable bioproduct.

Phage infection is difficult to prevent and the vulnerability of the bacterial culture is magnified by its high density and genetic homogeneity. Consequently, there is significant need for a strain of E. coli that is resistant to phage infection.

Funding for further research

There is more work to be done before this promising idea becomes a realistic business proposition. With help from a LifeArc business manager, the research group was awarded a Development Gap Fund (DGF) grant of £112,654 to further develop the technology to a stage where it would be more likely to attract licensees.

Further molecular changes to Syn61 are expected to generate new intellectual property, and LifeArc will continue to seek downstream collaborators and develop a marketing plan to enable the licensing of this technology to industry.

About the Development Gap Fund

  • The Development Gap Fund is an MRC fund administered by LifeArc.
  • It supports small-scale studies, building upon research in MRC institutes, to provide proof of concept for translational projects and facilitate commercialisation.
  • A LifeArc business manager assists the investigator in preparing a proposal, and presents it to the fund’s expert panel for consideration.
  • If you are interested in applying for funding, please contact us to learn more.


Blount BA, Ellis T. Construction of an Escherichia coli genome with fewer codons sets records. Nature. 2019;569(7757):492-494.

Fredens J, Wang K, de la Torre D, Funke LFH, Robertson WE, Christova Y, Chia T, Schmied WH, Dunkelmann DL, Beránek V, Uttamapinant C, Llamazares AG, Elliott TS, Chin JW. Total synthesis of Escherichia coli with a recoded genome. Nature.2019;569(7757):514-518.

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