Recommendation 2

Research Federal Activity Updated July 16, 2012

Support for Promising Research

Evaluate research proposals through peer-review mechanisms and other deliberative processes created to ensure that the most promising scientific research is conducted on behalf of the public.


Advancing the public good should be the primary determinant of relative public investment in synthetic biology versus other scientific activities. The National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy, and other federal agencies should continue to evaluate research proposals through peer-review mechanisms and other deliberative processes created to ensure that the most promising scientific research is conducted on behalf of the public.



  • Executive Office of the President
    • President Obama’s 2009 Strategy for American Innovation included $800 million in Recovery Act grants and $500 million in loan guarantees for biofuel development “harnessing recent advances in synthetic biology,” however an updated version of the document from 2011 omits any mention of synthetic biology.
  • Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)
    • National Institutes of Health (NIH)
      • Since 2006 the NIH, a research arm of HHS, has awarded approximately $108 million in grants for work in synthetic biology.  This dollar amount includes active synthetic biology projects, as well as grants awarded for the 2012 fiscal year.  The NIH Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tool was searched to obtain the projects funded in the field of synthetic biology.
  • National Science Foundation (NSF)
    • Since 2006, NSF has funded a total of approximately $72 million in research associated with synthetic biology.  NSF funding levels were obtained by searching the Foundation’s awards database
    • The Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC) is a multi-institution research effort to lay the foundation for the emerging field of synthetic biology. SynBERC, a California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences and a NSF engineering research center, aims to catalyze biology as an engineering discipline by developing the foundational understanding and technologies to allow researchers to design and build standardized, integrated biological systems to accomplish many particular tasks, thereby making biology easier to engineer.
  • Department of Defense (DOD)
    • Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)
      • In May 2011, DARPA’s Microsystems Technology Office launched the Living Foundries program, which aims to apply an engineering framework to biology in order to “harness its use as a technology and drive its advance as a manufacturing platform.” In September 2011, the program began soliciting research proposals “to develop new tools, technologies and methodologies to transform biology into an engineering practice, speeding the biological design-build-test cycle and expanding the complexity of systems that can be engineered.” For example, the program is interested in developing “the capability to design and engineer systems to rapidly and dynamically prevent, seek out, identify and repair corrosion/materials degradation” – a problem that costs DOD up to $23 billion annually. Other areas of interest include “design and automation tools, modular genetic parts and devices, standardized test platforms and chassis, tools for rapid physical construction, editing and manipulation of genetic designs, and new characterization and debugging tools for synthetic networks,” according to the program.
    • President Obama’s fiscal year 2013 budget request proposal for DOD, released in February 2012, includes $11.9 billion for science and technology programs, down from $12.2 billion in the FY12 request. However, the FY13 request does include a slight increase for DARPA, which is funded at $2.8 billion.  
  • Department of Agriculture (USDA)
    • National Institute of Food and Agriculture
      • Information gathered from the USDA suggests that it has awarded at least $2.3 million in grants in synthetic biology-related research since 2005.

  • Department of Energy (DOE)
    • Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL)
      • From March 2009 – September 2011, PNNL hosted a seminar series featuring nationally and internationally known researchers from industry, government, and academia discussing novel ideas and advancements related to biological sciences.  For example, these seminars addressed research in the areas of photosynthetic biofuels, non-photosynthetic cells for the conversion of light energy into useful chemical energy or electricity, systems biology and oil spills, and systems biology in the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer.
    • DOE's Biological Systems Science Division has devoted $30 million to foundational research relevant to biological redesign.
    • DOE’s ongoing ARPA-E Electrofuels program is funding a number of synthetic biology research groups focused on nontraditional biofuels, investing $44.5 million in 2010 in new technologies to use micro-organisms to produce more energy-efficient fuels for transportation.
    • The Genomic Science Program
      • The DOE Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) was formed in September 2007 to understand the biological mechanisms underlying biofuel production so that those mechanisms can be redesigned, improved, and used to develop novel, efficient bioenergy strategies that can be replicated on a mass scale.  Using technology such as synthetic biology, JBEI's research revolves around four interdependent efforts that focus on (1) developing new bioenergy crops, (2) enhancing biomass deconstruction, (3) producing new biofuels through synthetic biology, and (4) creating technologies that advance biofuel research.
  • National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
    • The Synthetic Biology Initiative at the NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, Calfornia, is designed to harness biology in reliable, robust, engineered systems to support NASA’s exploration and science missions, to improve life on Earth, and to help shape NASA’s future. The initiative is also intended to contribute foundational tools to the synthetic biology community.  The Initiative held a seminar series in 2011 focused on synthetic biology.
    • NASA Ames also recently established the Synthetic Biology Innovation Lab, which consists of a cross-disciplinary research group of NASA scientists and engineers, and aims to demonstrate, patent, and publish proof of principle applications of synthetic biology to NASA's mission.


  • The Synthetic Biology Institute at UC Berkeley (SBI) was established in 2010 to clear a path to the widespread production of new biological systems to benefit society. Through the combined effort of its researchers, partners and industry members, SBI is developing the standards and advancing efforts to engineer cells and biological systems in ways that promise to transform technology in health and medicine, energy, the environment, new materials, and a host of other critical arenas.  The new institute – aiming to create “an industrial revolution in biological engineering” – is launching a collaborative effort with Agilent Technologies, a leader in measurement technologies and products to advance science and engineering research. Agilent helped initiate SBI research with a multi-year, multi-million dollar commitment, including early access to new technologies through the active participation of the company’s research scientists and engineers.

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