About Synthetic Biology

Synthetic Biology is an emerging and promising research area with the potential to have a strong impact on future innovation and technological progress that is beneficial for the economy and for society as a whole. Synthetic Biology is at the intersection of engineering, bioscience, chemistry, and information technology. Synthetic Biology has been described using a number of terms, but there is convergence and consensus around the following commonly accepted definition:

‘Synthetic Biology is the engineering of biology: the deliberate (re)design and construction of novel biological and biologically based systems to perform new functions for useful purposes, that draws on principles elucidated from biology and engineering.’

By applying these principles to living systems, Synthetic Biology overcomes mimicry and optimisation-led research and introduces a rationale and systematic approach to the construction and (re)design. In summary, the rationale behind the highly interdisciplinary Synthetic Biology approach is to transfer engineering principles to biology and living organisms. Synthetic Biology is distinct from traditional genetic engineering in that it is based upon a broader grouping of methodological approaches. While genetic engineering techniques might be deployed in Synthetic Biology, much greater emphasis is placed upon predicting and controlling system behaviour and the use of de novo (chemically) synthesized DNA. Synthetic Biology is also distinct from Systems Biology, which is uses iterative cycles of biological experiments and computational modelling to further understand the dynamic interactions between living systems. In contrast, Synthetic Biology is focused on the construction of biological systems-based on modular components that are then (re)-assembled in novel ways.


Synthetic Biology is an emerging multidisciplinary research area, which borders a number of closely associated and overlapping scientific fields. Six closely associated and partially overlapping scientific fields have been identified for the scope of ERASynBio: metabolic engineering, minimal genomes, regulatory circuits, orthogonal biosystems, protocells and bionanoscience. The EASAC definition of these areas are presented below along with a published or recently funded example of research that identifies the Synthetic Biology approach:

  • Metabolic engineering: Attaining new levels of complexity in modification of biosynthetic pathways for sustainable chemistry.
  • Minimal genomes:Identifying the smallest number of parts needed for life as a basis for engineering minimal cell factories for new functions.
  • Regulatory circuits:Inserting well-characterised, modular, artificial networks to provide new functions in cells and organisms.
  • Protocells:Using programmable chemical design to produce (semi-)synthetic cells.
  • Orthogonal biosystems: Engineering cells to expand the genetic code to develop new information storage and processing capacity.
  • Bionanoscience: Developing molecular-scale motors and other components for cell-based machines or cell-free devices to perform complex new tasks.

The development of the Synthetic Biology approach has only been made possible by the parallel development of a number underpinning scientific advances. The underpinning advances that have been identified for ERASynBio are:

  • DNA Synthesis: De novo synthesis of digitally stored DNA sequences without the need for template DNA, including direct in vitro oligonucleotide synthesis and gene and genome synthesis through assembly of oligonucleotides.
  • Next Generation Sequencing: High-throughput mechanisms for determining nucleotide base order using 2nd and 3rd generation methods.
  • Systems Engineering: An interdisciplinary field of engineering focused on the design and management of complex engineering projects over their entire life cycle.
  • Systems Biology: Systems Biology aims to understand the dynamic interactions between components of a living system, between living systems and their interaction with the environment through integrating experiments in iterative cycles with computational modeling, simulation and theory development.
  • Computational Modeling: The use of computer programs to simulate abstract models of the desired system to find analytical solutions to a wide range of problems.
  • Computational Design: The process by which engineered parts, devices and systems are designed in silico. Computer aided design (CAD) is used for both 2D schematics and 3D models, and feeds directly into the engineering cycle (above).
  • Other: A range of other areas also underpin the Synthetic Biology approach including, but not limited to, omic technologies, and gene and genome transfer.

Application areas:

Despite its emerging status, Synthetic Biology has already demonstrated real potential to contribute to the grand challenges of the 21st century  (Source: Group BioFAB (2006) “Engineering life: building a fab for biology” Scientific American 294 (6):44-51): feeding the global human population (9 billion people by 2050); strengthening sustainable industrial production; overcoming reliance on petroleum based products; and the development of new pharmaceuticals. Due to its truly interdisciplinary character it is expected that Synthetic Biology will have applications across several industrial sectors including biomedicine, industrial biotechnology, agriculture, bioremediation, bioenergy and biosensors. The market is predicted to reach € 2,1bn in the coming decade (source: The Royal Academy of Engineering (2009) “Synthetic Biology: scope, applications and implications”).