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University to play key role in industry-academia networks

Posted on 19 December 2013

The University of York is set to play a major role in three networks in industrial biotechnology and bioenergy designed to boost interaction between academia and industry.

The networks are among 13 collaborative Networks in Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy announced by the Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts and funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

Representing a total investment of £18m, the networks pool skills from academia and business to develop research projects with the potential to overcome major challenges in the industrial biotechnology and bioenergy arena. They also allow new members to come on board with skills that can benefit the group. 

The University of York will lead two networks from its Centre for Novel Agricultural Products (CNAP) in the Department of Biology, while a third network has a York researcher from the Department of Biology as a Co-Director.

The two York-led networks have received a total of £3.6m from the BBSRC. 

Professor Simon McQueen-Mason from CNAP will lead the Plant Biomass Biorefinery Network with Professor Tim Bugg from the University of Warwick. Their aim is to support the development of technologies that provide sustainable, large-scale replacement of petroleum by lignocellulosic plant biomass. The Network will receive £2m funding over four years, £900,000 of which will be available for proof of concept research.

Professor Ian Graham, also from CNAP at York, will lead the High Value Chemicals from Plants Network with Professor Anne Osbourn from the John Innes Centre.  The Network will receive £1.6m funding to develop the UK as a leading producer of high value chemicals from plants. It will focus on identifying novel products, and optimising and developing both feedstocks and processes in planta.  Such activities could lead to providing useful chemicals for a wide range of applications for society or improved manufacturing processes for existing products.  It will have a £800,000 fund for proof of concept research. 

Dr Gavin Thomas from York’s Department of Biology will co-direct the network Crossing Biological Membranes: Engineering the Cell-Environment Interface to Improve Process Efficiency. Based at the University of Sheffield with Professor Jeff Green, the Network will focus on manipulating the essential membrane barrier that separates the inside from the outside of cells, mainly through approaches allowing the manipulation of what goes into the cell and what goes out. This could involve making cells more efficient at tolerating or removing biofuels like ethanol or butanol, produced during fermentation, but which can be toxic to the producing cells. It could also involve helping the same cells absorb more food, especially sugars derived from the woody (lignocellulosic) components of plant.

Professor Deborah Smith, Head of the Department of Biology at York, said: “We are delighted that the Department's expertise in industrial biotechnology and bioenergy has been recognised in the allocation of these networks. We look forward to playing a major role in the development of future research and applications in this area."

Universities and Science Minister David Willetts said: “To get ahead in the global race we need to turn our world-beating science and research into world-beating products and services, as set out in our Industrial Strategy.

"These networks will unlock the huge potential of biotechnology and bioenergy, such as finding innovative ways to use leftover food, and creating chemicals from plant cells."

Each network includes funds to support a range of small proof of concept research projects, to demonstrate potential benefits for end user industries.  The networks will then work with industries to investigate these research challenges further. Many of these ideas and collaborative links will build into the next phase: the Industrial Biotechnology Catalyst, funded by BBSRC, the Technology Strategy Board and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), to be launched in early 2014 to support the development of ideas from concept to commercialisation.

The catalyst has benefited from recent cash injections and will now offer £45M funding to support major integrated research projects involving collaborations between academic and business communities that will offer clear commercial potential.

These new schemes form the central part of BBSRC's strategy to support the development of Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy (IBBE) as a key component of the UK bioeconomy and will help to provide sustainable processes for producing bio-based alternatives products which currently rely on petrochemicals. 

Notes to editors:

  • BBSRC’s definition of Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy:

    Industrial biotechnology is the use of biological resources for producing and processing materials, chemicals and energy.  The resources include plants, algae, marine life, fungi and micro-organisms. The feedstocks include renewable materials such as crop wastes, animal wastes, food and municipal wastes and perennial biomass. BBSRC has included the production of anti-microbial compounds and biopharmaceuticals in IBBE too.
  • The Centre for Novel Agricultural Products (CNAP) is an award winning strategic research centre based in the Department of Biology at the University of York. CNAP is dedicated to realising the potential of plants as renewable, low-cost factories that produce high-value chemicals and biofuels. Laboratory based discoveries are translated into practice in partnership with industry.
    For more information about CNAP visit
  • For more information on the University of York’s Department of Biology visit
  • BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

    Funded by Government, and with an annual budget of around £467M (2012-2013), we support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

    For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see:

    For more information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes see:


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David Garner
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