What is Synthetic/Engineering Biology?

Synthetic biology aims to make biology easier to engineer. Synthetic biology is the convergence of advances in chemistry, biology, computer science, and engineering that enables us to go from idea to product faster, cheaper, and with greater precision than ever before. It can be thought of as a biology-based “toolkit” that uses abstraction, standardization, and automated construction to change how we build biological systems and expand the range of possible products. A community of experts across many disciplines has come together to create these new foundations for many industries, including medicine, energy and the environment.

A more detailed definition of synthetic biology

Synthetic biology is the design and construction of new biological entities such as enzymes, genetic circuits, and cells or the redesign of existing biological systems. Synthetic biology builds on the advances in molecular, cell, and systems biology and seeks to transform biology in the same way that synthesis transformed chemistry and integrated circuit design transformed computing. The element that distinguishes synthetic biology from traditional molecular and cellular biology is the focus on the design and construction of core components (parts of enzymes, genetic circuits, metabolic pathways, etc.) that can be modeled, understood, and tuned to meet specific performance criteria, and the assembly of these smaller parts and devices into larger integrated systems to solve specific problems. Just as engineers now design integrated circuits based on the known physical properties of materials and then fabricate functioning circuits and entire processors (with relatively high reliability), synthetic biologists will soon design and build engineered biological systems. Unlike many other areas of engineering, biology is incredibly non-linear and less predictable, and there is less knowledge of the parts and how they interact. Hence, the overwhelming physical details of natural biology (gene sequences, protein properties, biological systems) must be organized and recast via a set of design rules that hide information and manage complexity, thereby enabling the engineering of many-component integrated biological systems. It is only when this is accomplished that designs of significant scale will be possible.

Synthetic biology arose from four different intellectual agendas. The first is the scientific idea that one practical test of understanding is an ability to reconstitute a functional system from its basic parts. Using synthetic biology, scientists are testing models of how biology works by building systems based on models and measuring differences between expectation and observation. Second, the idea arose that, to some, biology is an extension of chemistry and thus synthetic biology is an extension of synthetic chemistry. Attempts to manipulate living systems at the molecular level will likely lead to a better understanding, and new types, of biological components and systems. Third is the concept that natural living systems have evolved to continue to exist, rather than being optimized for human understanding and intention. By thoughtfully redesigning natural living systems it is possible to simultaneously test our current understanding, and may become possible to implement engineered systems that are easier to study and interact with. Fourth, the idea emerged that biology can be used as a technology, and that biotechnology can be broadly redefined to include the engineering of integrated biological systems for the purposes of processing information, producing energy, manufacturing chemicals, and fabricating materials.

While the emergence of the discipline of synthetic biology is motivated by these agendas, progress towards synthetic biology has only been made practical by the more recent advent of two foundational technologies, DNA sequencing and synthesis. Sequencing has increased our understanding of the components and organization of natural biological systems and synthesis has provided the ability to begin to test the designs of new, synthetic biological parts and systems. While these examples each individually demonstrate the incredible potential of synthetic biology, they also illustrate that many foundational scientific and engineering challenges must be solved in order to make the engineering of biology routine. Progress on these foundational challenges requires the work of many investigators via a coordinated and constructive international effort.


Juan Enriquez: Using biology to rethink the energy challenge
Juan Enriquez challenges our definition of bioenergy. Oil, coal, gas and other hydrocarbons are not chemical but biological products, based on plant matter — and thus, growable. Our whole approach to fuel, he argues, needs to change.

Also from Juan Enriquez:

Homo Evolutis: Juan Enriquez at TEDxSMU
Harnessing Synthetic Genetics

George Church – Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves
Regenesis provides a fascinating overview of synthetic biology and the wonders it can produce: from new drugs and vaccines to biofuels and resurrected wooly mammoths. Recounting the evolution of life forms from the Hadean geologic era (3.8 billion years ago) through the present, the authors describe the raw material with which geneticists are working to create new organisms. With biotech hobbyists now at work in garages, the authors also urge the establishment of safety measures to keep people safe and engineered organisms under control.

Andrew Hessel – Introduction to Synthetic Biology
Andrew Hessel, pioneer in synthetic biology, discusses the similarities between computing and biology during a talk at Singularity University.

Suzanne Lee: Grow your own clothes
Designer Suzanne Lee shares her experiments in growing a kombucha-based material that can be used like fabric or vegetable leather to make clothing.

Stewart Brand: The dawn of de-extinction. Are you ready?
Throughout humankind’s history, we’ve driven species after species extinct. But now, we have the technology (and the biology) to bring back species that humanity wiped out. So — should we? Which ones? He asks a big question whose answer is closer than you may think.

Craig Venter: On the verge of creating synthetic life
“Can we create new life out of our digital universe?” Craig Venter asks. He walks through his latest research and promises that we’ll soon be able to build and boot up a synthetic chromosome.

Additional perspectives about synthetic biology

Factory of Life. Witze, A. Science News. Jan. 12, 2013.

21st Century Synthetic Biology. A talk given to the Institute on Science for Global Policy. Endy, D. (5 Dec 2012).

Synthetic Biology: Mapping the Scientific Landscape. (2012). Oldham, P., Hall, S., Burton, G. PLoS One 7(4).

Synthetic Biology: Taking a Look at the Field in the Making. Kronberger, N. (2012). Public Understanding of Science, v. 21.

The Next Industrial Revolution: How We Will Make Things in the 21st Century and Why It Matters. (2012). Rejeski, D. Wilson Center.

Rewiring Cells: Synthetic Biology as a Tool to Interrogate the Organizational Principles of Living Systems. Bashor, C.J., Horwitz, A.A., Peisajovich, S.G., Lim, W.A. (2010). Annual Review of Biophysics. vol. 39.

Synthetic Biology: Origin, Scote, and Ethics. (2010). Boldt, J. Minding Nature, v. 3(1).What Does Synthetic Biology Have to Do with Biology? (2009). Keller, E.F. Biosocieties, v. 4, no. 2-3.

Synthetic Biology: Lessons from the History of Synthetic Organic Chemistry. Yeh, B.J. and Lim, W.A. (2007). Nature Chemical Biology, v. 3, no. 9.

The Promise of Synthetic Biology. (2005). Keasling, J. The Bridge. National Academy of Engineering of the National Academies.