What is Synthetic Biology?

Synthetic biology expands the breadth of biology from the space of existing and “time-tested” biological systems to non-natural but potentially viable living systems. Synthetic biology complements systems biology but differs in that synthetic biology seeks to forward engineer biological systems towards some goal after understanding their mechanisms. On the other hand, systems biologists seek to understand how genetic circuits work and evolve in innate cellular processes. 

Many scientists will describe synthetic biology as the intersection between the biological and engineering sciences. Some will even say that synthetic biology was born from the design of “cellular switches” as sensors. To understand the complexity of some cellular systems, biologists have even found themselves borrowing logic-flow mindsets from computer scientists and electrical engineers. But equally valid is the viewpoint of scientists like Dr. George Church, one of the founders of the field and also mentor to Yale iGEM’s faculty advisor Dr. Farren Isaacs, which is that, “[Synthetic biology is] more like civil and mechanical engineering in its use of optimization of modeling of whole system-level stresses and traffic flow.” But what is consistent amongst all synthetic biologists visions of the field is that synthetic biology is an engineering discipline concerned with designing systems that do not yet exist. 


1) GM Church, MB ElowitzCD Smolke, CA Voigt, R Weiss. Realizing the potential of synthetic biology. (2014) Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology. 15, 289–294. [access article here]