Knowledge Based Bio-Economy


Synthetic biology targets environmental pollution

Project Acronym: TARPOL

Title of project: Targeting environmental pollution with engineered microbial systems a la carte

Research area: Biotechnologies (Synthetic biology for the environment - the use of synthetic biology for the solution of environmental problems)

Contract No: 212894

EU Contribution: 997 000 EURO

Start date: July 2008

Duration: 27 Months


The term synthetic biology (SB) describes the combination of biological activities with elements of engineering design. By merging the genetic tools that are already available with engineering disciplines and computer sciences there is an opportunity to develop a new approach to environmental pollution problems. This may be done through application of modelling techniques linked to organized development of novel biological systems with inputs classified according to various criteria into successive levels or layers that interact in a well defined way.

There can be a number of problems facing such an approach. So far scientist working in SB have not fully realised the potential of their activities in linking biological and non-biological concepts. As a result SB lacks both a comprehensive language and a means of describing the small functional biological parts that may be utilised. The development of SB also touches on the concept of recreating ‘life-in-the-test-tube’ which may cause the public to react in the same way as happened in respect of the use of genetically modified organisms in Europe. Such considerations may reduce the necessary industrial interest in this field, a problem this project aims to overcome through providing realistic answers to such questions.

This project aims to coordinate the present fragmented efforts and move this discipline towards industrially beneficial areas that are also of value to society in general. It hopes to encourage European scientific, technical and social professionals to generate the capacity to exploit properties present in biological systems as a means of solving environmental issues. The project will adopt environmental skills and techniques from relevant disciplines and set up a number of material and computational resources for development of advanced systems based on biological concepts. In so doing it will establish a generally accepted set of procedures and parts enabling the eventual adoption of SB by the environmental biotechnology industry.

Expected Impact

This project should impact on the understanding, interest in and development of synthetic biology and show how this science may be applied to environmental problems. It will encourage further discussion of various concerns related to SB that are clearly distinguishable from those associated with other life science. It will also impact on the establishment of a solid European Research Agenda on SB. At present research on SB mainly takes place in developed countries, spread between universities, companies, research institutions and policy centers that tend to work independently. The project will encourage an increase in coordination efforts that have only recently started. The project also hopes to impact on the number of people entering this area of science encouraging mobilization, interdisciplinary collaboration and relevant training accelerating development of this relatively new discipline.

The selection of BS for the prevention, monitoring and remediation of pollution at a time when the environment is at the forefront of political agendas, as well as the media and public interest, is expected to increasing interest in this area as well as generating useful applications. However, the potential impact of such environmental aspects is less clear as little information has so far passed from the project into the public domain.

Expected Results

This project aims to bring together various aspects of synthetic biology (SB), including relevant concepts and tools. It will produce summaries of available information, focusing on molecular and modelling tools for engineering and design. It will create a database covering specific, environmental aspects of SB, as well as identify and assess the impact of the social, ethical and environmental issues involved. It will also identify potential market opportunities in environmental SB and establish a Biodegradation and Environmental Metabolism database. In order to provide a better understanding of minimal cell systems it will investigate the design of minimal biological parts and show how they may be connected to achieve functional systems. It will also design new molecular tools for the development of SB setting up both a real and a virtual resource for modelling, simulating and constructing biological materials that can be applied to problems of environmental pollution. This will include the re-design and re-synthesis of vectors and genetic materials for engineering of complex phenotypes for use in environmental bacteria. It will accumulate various molecular tools, expression systems, strains and synthesized DNA parts tailored for environmental biomonitoring and biocatalysis together with means of assembly.

The project will also lay the basis for developing a set (SynBio Toolbox) of modelling tools that will cover the underlying principles of design, circuits and assemblies as well as the ways in which various parts are connected in a cellular context. It will establish a Working Group and a workshop series on Computational frameworks and Tools for SB. Another major result of this project will be the development of training activities aimed at capturing the interest of young scientists and encouraging their participation in the future development of SB.

Website of


Coordinator: Andrés MOYA,

Organisation: University of Valencia,


Helmholtz-Zentrum fuer Infektionsforschung GmbH , Germany,

Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas , Spain

Institut Pasteur , France,

Universidad Politécnica de Valencia, Spain,

Université de Lausanne, Switzerland,

Universita’ degli Studi di Milano Italy,

Geneart GmbH, Germany

Ecole normale supérieure Paris, France,

Universita’ Ca’foscardi di Venezia , Italy

Biological Research Centre, Hungary

Fundación Centro Nacional de Investigaciones Oncologicas Carlos III, Spain,

Commissariat a L’energie atomique , France

Organisation for International Dialogue and Conflict Management, Austria,

Centre National de la Recherche Scinetifique , France,

ETH-Zurich, Switzerland,

Imperial College, UK,

Bauer Environment GmbH, Germany,