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Scientists and researchers have long searched for solutions to some of the greatest threats to humanity’s future, such as disease, hunger, and climate change. Some of the answers may be found within biology itself—and in the ability to harness its potential.

What is Synthetic Biology?

Synthetic biology is the fundamental science and engineering that allows us to reuse, repurpose, and reconfigure biological systems to address society’s most pressing challenges.

Learn more about synthetic biology


Northwestern’s Center for Synthetic Biology

Northwestern’s strategic vision for synthetic biology began in 2008, with the hiring of the first of five researchers who formed the nucleus of what would become the Center for Synthetic Biology. This group included Josh Leonard, Michael Jewett, Keith Tyo, Neda Bagheri, and Milan Mrksich. Northwestern continued to advance its efforts in this field, officially launching the Center for Synthetic Biology (CSB) on March 22, 2016, with Mrksich as the founding director and Jewett as founding co-director. As part of this launch, the University recruited top-talent from across the country, including Julius Lucks from Cornell University and Danielle Tullman-Ercek from the University of California, Berkeley, who now serve as the center’s co-directors.

In its short history, Northwestern’s CSB has become a leader in the field.

Research funding saw sharp increases in 2018 when the NIH awarded its first research project grant specifically dedicated to synthetic biology to Northwestern faculty Josh Leonard and Neda Bagheri, funding their efforts to build technologies that advance cell-based therapies. In 2022, the University established a Cell-Free Biomanufacturing Institute, in partnership with the U.S. Army’s Chemical Biological Center, to accelerate the development of synthetic biology technologies for the creation of on-demand and point-of-need products useful to both society and the Army. More recently, Northwestern has joined in larger scale collaborations to advance this research. In October 2022, the University announced an $18.5 million grant over five years from the U.S. Department of Energy to establish a new center for multi-scale synthetic biology with frequent Northwestern partner LanzaTech, a Skokie-based biotech company that recycles carbon emissions, along with Yale University and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The center’s approach, in which experts across different fields collaborate to solve timely problems, has helped secure funding for additional projects in recent years.

“Much like the stage of nanoscience and technology 20 years ago, synthetic biology continues to advance and gain prominence and promise. It’s especially exciting for us to be a leader in this field because of how well this research connects to Northwestern’s culture of innovation and entrepreneurship.” – Milan Mrksich, past Vice President for Research

Since 2016, the center’s ranks have grown to include 21 faculty across McCormick, Weinberg, and Feinberg, spanning multiple departments in engineering, the sciences, and the social sciences and representing one of the largest and most diverse concentrations of synthetic biology faculty in the country. These faculty continue to propel the field forward in research, have established a nucleus of some of the most exciting new startups in the synthetic biology space, and have created whole new approaches to training students – accomplishments that are attracting the nation’s top talent and making Northwestern a focal point for leadership in the field.

CSB has transformed synthetic biology education, entrepreneurship, and community-building.

CSB is home to the first-of-their-kind, NSF-funded education programs for undergraduate and graduate students to train the next generation of synthetic biologists. Seven startups have emerged from the center in the last several years. And the center’s faculty, including Lucks, Leonard, Tullman-Ercek, and Jewett, have played leadership roles within the Engineering Biology Research Consortium (EBRC), a public-private partnership partially funded by the NSF to advance synthetic biology research to address national and global needs.

Having laid a strong foundation for growth in research, education, and entrepreneurship over the past decade, Northwestern has established itself as a world-class leader in synthetic biology. Our community represents a global hub for synthetic biology, bringing in researchers, students, educators, entrepreneurs, artists, and policymakers from around the world to help solve some of society’s most pressing challenges.