What is Synthetic Biology?

German Association for Synthetic Biology



What is Synthetic Biology?

Synthetic Biology is an interdisciplinary engineering discipline, which combines the field of engineering and biology in order to design, build and test artificial biological systems.
The goal is to engineer them with mechanical precision, similar to more traditional engineering disciplines such as mechanical or electrical engineering. Engineering principles like standardization, decoupling and abstraction enable the construction of biological systems with new, non-natural functions.

Why Synthetic Biology?

Synthetic Biology is different from electrical and mechanical engineering in terms of the problems, which can be solved by the different engineering disciplines. Synthetic biology won’t revolutionize smart phones, the internet, or electric cars. However, the energy, health, environmental, agricultural, food and the biosecurity sector could greatly benefit from Synthetic Biology.

The Beginnings

In the 1970’s scientists were already exploring biological systems and were able to manipulate DNA and genes on a molecular level. However, the idea of programming biological systems was first pioneered by the publications of a toggle switch (1-bit memory), an artificial biological oscillator and engineered cell-cell communication systems in bacteria. The new way of thinking leading to these publications required much more sophistication and control than the suppression or introduction of single genes. The introduction of concepts from electrical engineering into biological systems sparked the idea of programming organisms like computers.

Early Milestones

Shortly after the iGEM competition was first held in 2004, where students competed to in the creation of synthetic biological systems. Today over 300 university and high school teams compete annually at the iGEM competition, which is the first introduction to the filed for many participants. 

In 2006 the production of artemisinin with genetically engineered yeasts demonstrated the ability of Synthetic Biology to impact the commercial world.

In 2008 the first complete bacterial genome was artificially synthesized, and it was later even demonstrated, that the synthetic genome was functional in living bacteria.


Synthetic Biology Today

Advances in DNA synthesis, assembly and sequencing enables researchers to build ever more complex systems at simultaneously reduced costs. Researchers are now able to synthesize hundreds of thousands of base pairs at a comparably low price allowing for the design of complex biological systems, like biological circuits. The synthesis capability enables the study of minimal necessary genomes for life. The minimal genome could be introduced in a host cell (which has its own genome removed), and then be “booted up” to create a minimal lifeform. The minimal cell would serve as a chassis for synthetic biologist to engineer biology from the ground up. Another approach is to reengineer already existing organisms by rewiring their genetic programs through deletions and introduction of genes.

Challenges of synthetic Biology

Although Synthetic Biology has made remarkable advancements, there are still major scientific challenges which need to be solved to establish Synthetic Biology as a reliable and predictable engineering discipline:


  • incomplete understanding of DNA and genomes – we don’t know what many  genes are doing
  • the transfer of genes across organisms is difficult
  • predicting how the cellular context (proteins, RNA, etc.) interact with artificially introduced systems is difficult
  • artificially introduced systems can be toxic to the host organism for unknown reasons
  • genetic circuits are context dependent – circuits may work in single cells, but fail to work when many cells interact together
  • Making exact predictions of behavior on the atomic scale is difficult ­– How do proteins and enzymes work and interact with one another and how can we effectively model their behaviors
  • some genes are difficult to synthesize for e.g., repeating sequences or sequences with high G and C contents


Current Topics

Browse trough the Synbio Labs in Germany and see what research is currently going on: