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Sidebar: Relationship Building in Synthetic Biology

Dec. 2006 / Jan. 2007 | Unlike the Bio-IT Alliance, formally launched at the 2006 Bio-IT World Conference & Expo (See "Microsoft Forges BioIT Alliance," Bio-IT World April 2006, p.12), through which Microsoft fosters links with industrial partners to create solutions in the life sciences, the aim of Microsoft Research (MRL) is to forge partnerships with academic researchers.

In its latest initiative, last November, MSR issued a request for proposals (RFP) on "computational challenges in synthetic biology," allocating $500,000 for two principle areas of research:

1) The re-engineering of natural biological pathways to produce interoperable, composable, standard biological parts. Examples include the role of computers in the "specification, simulation, construction and dissemination of biological components or systems of interacting components."

2) Tools and information repositories relating to the use of DNA in the fabrication of nanostructures and nanodevices.

According to bioinformatics program manager Simon Mercer, MRL is trying to build relationships with the academic community "in a range of areas of strategic interest. These range from pen-centric computing to robotics and from computing in emerging economies to addressing the shortage of undergraduates enrolling in computer science."

Mercer says that the challenges faced by scientists today will be faced by business tomorrow and eventually by everyone. "Encouraging and participating in basic research helps us to better understand these problems and their potential solutions," says Redmond-based Mercer. "We believe we already have products and technologies that can help scientists work more efficiently, or which may form the basis for new applications that could help advance the state of the art in research."

Synthetic biology is a particularly interesting field, Mercer asserts, because it has "the potential to provide insights into living systems, transform biotechnology and perhaps generate entirely new industries. We might be able to help this happen."

Microsoft will announce the synthetic biology award winners next March, encouraging proposals that utilize or integrate other funding sources and resources such as the MIT BioBricks repository. Software and data are to be made freely available to the scientific community.

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