Microsoft is adding synthetic biology to its universe. Today, the software giant announced $570,000 in grants to six teams of academic researchers exploring new ways to meld biology with computer science, math, and engineering.
"The reason we're in this area is there is a lot of potential," said Microsoft official Simon Mercer earlier this year in an interview with Science. "We may never be a biotech company, but ... we want to see growth of a set of tools that support synthetic biology activities." Synthetic biology uses mathematical modeling and other computational tools to devise new biological functions.
Grantees include researchers from schools such as the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, and Harvard University. The scientists are involved in building the next generation of cloning methods and creating computer code to help them fold DNA into more complex shapes. One of the awardees, chemist David Green, an expert on protein design at Stony Brook University in New York, is exploring studies in protein and gene design aimed at making transgenic organisms that keep their new traits longer. That's an early challenge to synthetic biologists in a variety of areas.
"One advantage of having industry involved is to make sure that there is a focus on useful applications as opposed to simply proof of principle kind of projects," says Green. He hopes the $90,000 in seed money from Microsoft will help him do early modeling studies, providing preliminary results useful to winning more funds for broader work later.