Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Special Feature: Opportunities in Synthetic Biology


The concept of synthesizing life has been around for quite a while in scientific--and science fiction--literature, but only in the past 5 years have rapid advances in DNA synthesis techniques allowed the field to crystallize. As a consequence of its promise for elucidating basic science and its huge potential for meeting pressing human needs, the nascent field is growing as universities, funding agencies, and national governments pour money into new research centers, research networks, and conferences.

The field offers many opportunities for early-career scientists--as long as they are prepared to abandon doctrine for a more open-minded approach to doing science. The field is so new that its definition is not yet set in stone. Plenty of space remains for biologists, engineers, chemists, physicists, mathematicians, computer scientists--even philosophers--to help define the field. In synthetic biology you can still be a pioneer.

So where exactly are the opportunities, and how do you embark? Getting Ready for Synthetic Biology provides an overview of the current state of the field and some tips on how to gain the skills you'll need.

Although the range of projects tackled under the umbrella of synthetic biology is vast, dedicated training programs remain rare, so most--or at least many--scientists find their own way in. In A Multidisciplinary Approach to Life a microbiologist, a mechanical engineer, and a chemist tell Science Careers how they got into the field.

In our Science Careers podcast (mp3), produced by Contributing Editor Kate Travis, you can hear firsthand from three synthetic biologists: a mechanical engineer who participated in the international Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, a computer scientist at Nottingham University in the United Kingdom, and a senior biologist at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland.

Finally, to complete this introduction to synthetic biology, here's a (nonexhaustive) list of further resources:

A Few Prominent Synthetic Biologists (in Alphabetical Order)

Caroline Ajo-Franklin of the Biological Nanostructures Facility at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL)

Frances Arnold of the Chemical Engineering Division at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech)

Angela Belcher of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

Steven Benner at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Florida

Michelle Chang of the Department of Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley)

Irene Chen at the FAS Center for Systems Biology at Harvard University

Jason Chin of the Protein and Nucleic Acid Chemistry Division at Cambridge University

James Collins of the Biomedical Engineering Department at Boston University

Antoine Danchin of the Genetics of Bacterial Genomes Unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, France

Victor de Lorenzo at the Spanish National Center of Biotechnology in Madrid

Michael Elowitz of the Division of Biology at Caltech

Drew Endy of the Department of Bioengineering at Stanford University

John Glass of the J. Craig Venter Institute

Alfonso Jaramillo of the Biochemistry Laboratory at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, France

Kristala Jones Prather of the Department of Chemical Engineering at MIT

Jay Keasling at the Joint BioEnergy Institute in California

Richard Kitney of the Department of Bioengineering at the Imperial College of Science, Technology, and Medicine in London, the United Kingdom

Thomas Knight of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT

Tanja Kortemme of the Department of Biopharmaceutical Sciences at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF)

Natalio Krasnoger of the School of Computer Science at the University of Nottingham, the United Kingdom.

Xiaoxia Lin of the Chemical Engineering Department at the University of Michigan

Pier Luigi Luisi of the Roma Tre University in Italy

Andrs Moya of the Cavanilles Institute for Biodiversity and Evolutionary Biology in Valencia, Spain

Radhika Nagpal of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University

Sven Panke , at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) Zurich

Daphne Preuss of the Division of Biological Sciences at the University of Chicago

Randy Rettberg of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT

Peter Schultz at the Scripps Research Institute in California

Petra Schwille at the Biotechnology Center (BIOTEC) of the Technische Universität Dresden in Germany

Luis Serrano of the Center for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona, Spain

Pam Silver of the Department of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School

Hamilton Smith of the J. Craig Venter Institute in Maryland

Christina Smolke of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at Caltech

Jingdong Tian of the Biomedical Engineering Department at Duke University

Alfonso Valencia of the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre in Madrid

Christopher Voigt of the Department of Pharmaceutical Chemistry at UCSF

Updated: 23 October 2008

Dedicated Research Centres and Departments

 The Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC), a multi-institution initiative in California

 The Berkeley Centre for Synthetic Biology

 The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University

 The Joint BioEnergy Institute in Emeryville, California

 The J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland

 The Centre for Synthetic Biology at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands

 Imperial College London's Institute of Systems and Synthetic Biology

Synthetic Biology Organizations and Research Networks

 The BioBricks Foundation (BBF)

 The community

 The Club de biologie synthtique et systmique (SynBioSys) in the Paris region

 The European Commission 18 FP6 research and policy networks in synthetic biology in Europe

 FP7-funded TARPOL (Targeting environmental pollution with engineered microbial systems à la carte) consortium

 Seven synthetic biology research networks in the United Kingdom

 The Industry Association of Synthetic Biology (IASB)


 The international Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition

 Courses offered by SynBERC

 A list of courses worldwide A fun crash course in the fundamentals of synthetic biology

Further Reading

 A UK-funded review on Synthetic Biology: Social and Ethical challenges

 Synthetic Biology: Caught between Property Rights, the Public Domain, and the Commons in PLoS Biology

 Do We Need "Synthetic Bioethics" in Science

 Synthetic Biology: Promises and Challenges in Nature

 Synthetic biology: new engineering rules for an emerging discipline in Molecular Systems Biology

Upcoming Workshops and Conferences

 Synthetic Biology x.0 (this year's Synthetic Biology 4.0 closed its doors earlier this week but watch that space)

 Synthetic Biology Workshop at the Centre for Synthetic Biology in the Netherlands on 6-8 November 2008

 Systems and Synthetic Biology: Scientific and Social Implications conference at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany, on 7-8 November 2008

 The Second European Conference on Synthetic Biology in Saint Feliu, Spain on 20 March-3 April 2009

 BioSysBio Conference in synthetic biology, systems biology, and bioinformatics at Cambridge University, on 23-25 March 2009

 Advances in Synthetic Biology conference in London, 28-29 April 2009

 Foundation of Systems Biology in Engineering (FOSBE) in Denver, Colorado, on 9-12 August 2009

 Synthetic Biology: Building on Nature's Inspiration in Irvine, California, on 18-21 November 2009

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for South and West Europe.