What is synthetic biology? Why is it important?

Synthetic biology—the design and construction of new biological parts, devices, and systems, and the redesign of natural biological systems for useful purposes—is contributing sustainable and innovative solutions to numerous, pressing human needs and global challenges.

First established as a scientific discipline just over ten years ago, technical advances in the field continue to open up new possibilities in healthcare, agriculture, chemicals, materials, energy, and bioremediation. With a global market of $10.8 billion in 2018, synthetic biology is playing an important role in the bioeconomy and has increasing implications for future US competitiveness and employment.

View Recent Developments 
View May 2018 GP-write Meeting Summary 

On the Promises and Challenges of Engineering Biology

Andras Forgacs
Modern Meadow

Ellen Jorgensen, Ph.D.

Harris Wang, Ph.D.
Columbia University

Howard Salis, Ph.D.
Penn State University

Manmohan Singh, Ph.D.
Novartis Influenza Vaccines

Marcia Kean
Feinstein Kean Healthcare

Megan J. Palmer, Ph.D.
Stanford University/LEAP

Melissa Rhoads
Lockhead Martin

Natalie Kuldell, Ph.D.

Paula Olsiewski, Ph.D.
Alfred P. Sloan Foundation

Salvatore Russello, Ph.D.
New England Biolabs

Steven L. Evans, Ph.D.
Dow AgroSciences Discovery R&D

Promising developments are occurring across various industries. For example,

  • In energy, Solazyme is creating the first consumer-ready fuel for cars, planes and boats by creating special algae that secrete lipids far in excess of any natural capacity.
  • In chemicals, Ginkgo Bioworks is working with professional perfumers to create the world’s first designer, cultured rose extract. Gingko’s state of the art foundry allows them to engineer fragrances that combine multiple strains of roses with mathematically precise scents.
  • In agriculture, higher yielding crops are being designed to grow in arid climates, resist pests, and be able to feed 7 billion people.
  • In public health, Novartis is working to establish real-time geographically dispersed vaccine production for pandemic virus outbreaks, making faster cures available, the importance of which was demonstrated in 2009, when vaccines for the H1N1 virus became available only after human infections peaked.
  • And in environmental remediation, Modular Genetics engineered a microorganism that produced soy-based biodispersants for oil-pollution management, that could be used to assist in cleaning up environmental disasters such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf.

This frontier is just beginning to be explored, however, and there is still much to be done in order to fulfill the promise of synthetic biology safely and responsibly.  A comprehensive strategic planning process conducted with the synthetic biology community in 2013 – 2014, indicated the following needs in the years ahead:

  • A research community that continues to lead the development of both foundational tools and applications
  • A growing portfolio of commercial successes and industrial collaborations
  • Funding for projects that maximally advance the field and mechanisms that connect these projects
  • Another generation of researchers and advocates
  • A research community trained in responsible innovation
  • Public engagements that inform and build support for the goals of the synthetic biology community, both nationally and globally
  • A shared vision, roadmaps, and execution strategies to achieve all of this
  • Transparent regulatory environment that clarifies framework of regulation and reduces the risk of synbio introduction while protecting public values
  • International collaboration

In addition, there is the need to establish and strengthen a common infrastructure that would be open to and support the efforts of the national and international synthetic biology communities (whether academic institutions, independent researchers or citizen researchers from the DIY community).

A new national nonprofit Center of Excellence for Engineering Biology, dedicated to these activities would represent a visible, stable, accountable and long-term commitment to advancing synthetic biology in the public interest, sustaining US leadership in this area and fostering global cooperation.

“A national synthetic biology organization could convene scientists and stakeholders from commercial entities, philanthropy, academia, and government to discuss policy, develop regulation, prioritize the development of tools and fundamental research, engage the public on education and ethical issues and create infrastructure.”

The Need: Center of Excellence for Engineering Biology


Explosive Potential, Unfinished Agenda. American scientists pioneered the field of synthetic biology, and the US government funded the research that created the earliest commercial products. The frontier is still just beginning to be explored, however, and there is much to be done to assure public acceptance of the fledgling industry and to fulfill the promise of engineering biology safely and responsibly.


Leadership Required to Shape Synbio Community Strategy. An early US endeavor, the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (Synberc), was established in 2006 to lay the groundwork for the field and nurture the development of the industry. It was very successful in creating a community, building an infrastructure, producing new tools and knowledge and forging industrial relationships. Continued leadership will be required to pull together all the elements of the synthetic biology community—people, ideas, and material—and cooperatively shape them into a coherent strategy.


Public Acceptance and Supportive Regulatory Framework Critical to Future Growth. Meanwhile, the field of synthetic biology is evolving, with little attention being paid to how to responsibly sustain it in ways that will promote public acceptance, scalable solutions, strong commercial entities and a supportive regulatory framework. In the absence of a legitimate responsible voice, interest groups opposed to biological engineering are educating the public. Without a new non-governmental organization to coordinate and lead an integrated, strategic approach to developing synthetic biology excellence, the industry will be stymied (or, at the very least, fragmented or siloed) in its infancy.


Increasing International Competition Spotlights Need for Collaboration. In addition, although much of the foundational work occurred in the United States and a vibrant research community and industrial base has evolved here, there are signs that future expansion will happen elsewhere. The European Commission, the UK and China all understand what this means for employment, economies and the expansion of wealth. All three have created industry roadmaps, committed national and regional funding for synthetic biology development and are building ambitious infrastructure. Meanwhile, the US government has taken little action to participate in international dialogue, promote investment in a synthetic biology infrastructure or to develop policies for the introduction and acceptance of synbio products.

If the US is to continue to play a leadership role in growing the industry it birthed, stakeholders across the country will have to step up to cooperate and lead.

Recent Developments

  • The Engineering Biology Research and Development Act of 2015 would establish a National Engineering Biology Research and Development Program to support and coordinate Federal R&D in engineering biology. Read the bill: H.R. Bill on Synbio