Area of investment and support

Area of investment and support: Chemical biology and biological chemistry

This research area focuses on the development of novel chemical tools and technologies for the understanding of biology and the synthesis of biological and biologically active molecules.

Partners involved:
Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)

The scope and what we're doing

This research area focuses on the development of novel chemical tools and technologies for the understanding of biology and the synthesis of biological and biologically active molecules. It also covers biomimetic chemistry, synthetic methods that mimic biochemical processes, including producing simplified chemical models of complex biological systems.

This area covers applications of EPSRC chemical biology and biological chemistry, in all biological contexts, ranging from agriculture to animal and human biology. However, proposals predominantly focused on a biological or medical or disease question do not fall within this research area and are covered by other research councils.

The UK has a strong research base in chemical biology and biological  chemistry. However, the focus has shifted increasingly into the biological and medical space.

Research outputs from EPSRC’s previous Life Sciences Interface programme and other initiatives have been taken forward, leaving a gap that has not been filled by new chemical biology and biological chemistry research.

We will work with the community to ensure that vital enabling research capability is grown by encouraging new physical sciences innovation in this area to safeguard its long term health in the UK. Without this, we risk losing our world leading position and generating a bottleneck in important tools and fundamental understanding.

The health of this area also has long term implications for application-led research fields for which it is critically relevant – for example, healthcare technologies, synthetic biology, life and medical sciences as recognised by the Technology Touching Life consultation. Research in this area is central to addressing current and future national challenges related to sustainability and resource efficiency.

Novel and adventurous engineering and physical sciences research is actively encouraged, and will be supported at a level appropriate to the growing community.

We aim to:

  • support the community to pursue highly adventurous and interdisciplinary research in this research area
  • clarify EPSRC’s role in a complex funding landscape, working even more collaboratively with other research councils and funders to ensure strategies are distinct and complementary to support this area
  • work with the community to encourage the development of the next generation of platform technologies to enable the pursuit of new academic challenges and exploration of previously inaccessible chemical and biological space
  • invest in interdisciplinary training, particularly at the early career stage, to enable researchers to develop their track record and raise their profiles, and so develop the next generation of research leaders in this cross-disciplinary and collaborative area.

Why we're doing it

Chemical biology and biological chemistry research in the UK is frequently highlighted as world-leading and generates high quality research outputs including publications and platform technologies that underpin the life and medical sciences – vital components of the UK economy.

There has been considerable growth of the chemical biology community in the UK as a result of a number of funding and networking initiatives, as well as the movement of researchers from other academic fields such as synthetic organic chemistry.

The funding landscape for chemical biology is diverse and this research area interfaces with the remit of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and Medical Research Council (MRC) in addition to a number of other funders. EPSRC is a relatively small part of this landscape. Despite the growth in the community, the critical mass of research activity has shifted away from innovative and novel engineering and physical sciences research.

The majority of the EPSRC portfolio for this area is in interdisciplinary doctoral training. A number of key institutions within the EPSRC portfolio have hired chemical biologists and biological chemists with a large proportion of these being at the early career stage.

Researchers have also moved into this research area from connected fields such as organic chemistry and analytical science. EPSRC’s portfolio represents investments in a large number of universities and includes critical mass and leadership in some key interdisciplinary centres.

The infrastructure needs of this portfolio are diverse, correlated with the broad spectrum of research that chemical biology encompasses. There are requirements for multi-user equipment and high performance computing consortia (Collaborative Computational Project for Biomolecular Simulation (CCP-BioSim) and High-End Computing Consortium for Biomolecular Simulation (HEC BioSim)) that rely on hardware infrastructure such as ARCHER and specialist national facilities such as those at Diamond Light Source.

This is a key underpinning area of capability for the health and life sciences and the need to facilitate this has been acknowledged through Technology Touching Life.

The chemical and pharmaceutical sector contributed over £15 billion to the UK’s GDP in 2015 and in the same year the UK life science industry had an annual turnover of £56 billion. Following changes to the pharmaceutical landscape in the UK and an increase in the number of small and medium sized enterprises there has been a move in favour of increased collaboration to share expertise and equipment. Academic stakeholders are well engaged with the private sector and have attracted increasing leverage from project partners.

View evidence sources used to inform our research strategies.

Past projects, outcomes and impact

Visualising our portfolio (VoP) is a tool for users to visually interact with the EPSRC portfolio and data relationships. Find out more about research area connections and funding for Chemical Biology and Biological Chemistry.

Find previously funded projects on Grants on the Web.

Last updated: 21 December 2022

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