Synthetic biology

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Synthetic biology is a subfield of biology and engineering concerned -- as a goal or side effect -- with the construction of artificial life forms for technological, medical or research purposes.

Different approaches exist to achieve such constructions. For example, nucleic acid bases may be modified, genes knocked in or out, cells or tissue transgrafted or organs transplanted.

At a more fundamental level, self-replicative systems other than nucleic acids and proteins may be constructed, or the carbon-based biology we know from our planet may be replaced experimentally by a kind of life based on other elements, notably silicon.

Somewhat more broadly, the American Chemical Society’s journal, ACS Synthetic Biology, states:

The journal is particularly interested in studies on the design and synthesis of new genetic circuits and gene products; computational methods in the design of systems; and integrative applied approaches to understanding disease and metabolism.

It lists the following topics as appropriate for its journal on synthetic biology:

Design and optimization of genetic systems
Genetic circuit design and their principles for their organization into programs
Computational methods to aid the design of genetic systems
Experimental methods to quantify genetic parts, circuits, and metabolic fluxes
Genetic parts libraries: their creation, analysis, and ontological representation
Protein engineering including computational design
Metabolic engineering and cellular manufacturing, including biomass conversion
Natural product access, engineering, and production
Creative and innovative applications of cellular programming
Medical applications, tissue engineering, and the programming of therapeutic cells
Minimal cell design and construction
Genomics and genome replacement strategies
Viral engineering
Automated and robotic assembly platforms for synthetic biology
DNA synthesis methodologies
Metagenomics and synthetic metagenomic analysis
Bioinformatics applied to gene discovery, chemoinformatics, and pathway construction
Gene optimization
Methods for genome-scale measurements of transcription and metabolomics
Systems biology and methods to integrate multiple data sources
in vitro and cell-free synthetic biology and molecular programming
Nucleic acid engineering

The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) also publishes a journal on synthetic biology, IET Synthetic Biology, the editor commenting on the discipline in part as follows:

Synthetic biology is the discipline that has resulted from [the] collision of new enabling technologies. Thus, recombinant DNA and improved DNA synthesis techniques provide the means of assembling new genetic systems, and computational approaches borrowed from systems biology provide tools for the design and modelling of artificial biological circuits. In addition however, the shift from analysis of naturally evolved biological systems to the construction of synthetic systems requires the recruitment of engineering principles to biology.[1]

Similarly, the editorial in the inaugural issue of the open-access journal, Systems and Synthetic Biology, provides additional insights into the nature of the interdisciplinary enterprise:

Systems biology is an integrative science that aims to bridge the individual behavior of biological components with a collective behavior of the system. Synthetic biology, a technological counterpart, borrows key hierarchical and modular concepts from systems biology. Novel pathways, cell-like systems and multicell communities are constructed from a library of standardized biological parts. The shared goals of systems biology and synthetic biology are to gain a fundamental understanding of cellular processes and create new cell circuits using a combination of experimental, theoretical and computational methods.

Synthetic biology combines knowledge from various disciplines including molecular biology, engineering, mathematics, and physics to design and implement new cellular behaviors. The new behaviors are achieved through a variety of bioengineering efforts that include the construction of novel proteins, genetic circuits, signaling cascades, and metabolic networks. Through the de novo construction of elements and circuits, the goal of synthetic biology is both to improve our quantitative understanding of natural phenomenon as well as to foster an engineering discipline for obtaining new complex cell behaviors in a predictable and reliable fashion.


  1. Haseloff J. (2007) Editorial: IET Synthetic Biology. IET Synth. Biol. 1:1-2
  2. Pawan K Dhar, Ron Weiss. (2006) Enabling the new biology of the 21st century. Syst Synth Biol. 1(1):1–2. Published online 2006 October 19.