Synthetic Biology 101

What is Synthetic Biology?

Synthetic biology is a discipline that uses biological components as building blocks in the design of new systems to solve crucial global challenges

By combining concepts across disciplines, researchers can build with biology in much the same way an engineer creates a high-tech device; but instead of the program running on a computer, it does so within a biological system. Advances in DNA sequencing, DNA synthesis, machine learning, and artificial intelligence have fueled synthetic biology’s growth, allowing for the development and scaling of new bioengineered solutions. These solutions can interface with every facet of our lives.

As estimated by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, the bioeconomy is about five percent of US gross domestic product (one trillion dollars) and growing, compared to the approximate one percent that represents the U.S. semiconductor industry. Investments in the bioeconomy have given rise to billion-dollar companies that rely on synthetic biology for their products. Often, these companies are using biology to redesign traditional processes to produce familiar items in ways that are more environmentally sustainable.

Synthetic Biology Technology is All Around Us

Examples of synthetic biology appear everywhere

In agriculture, synthetic biologists have developed microbes that can make their own fertilizer, a development that could combat global hunger by increasing crop yield and aiding farmers in some of the world’s poorest regions. In the commodities industry, synthetic biologists have engineered a bacterium that can pull carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide out of the air, turning them into common chemicals like acetone and isopropanol—redirecting carbon emissions that are normally funneled into the atmosphere. In medicine, synthetic biology innovations such as mRNA vaccines are being used as tools to treat infectious diseases, helping public health experts and society stay a step ahead of the next pandemic and providing new approaches to teach our own immune systems to better detect and eliminate cancers.

The grocery store offers an even more well-known product of synthetic biology’s potential and reach. The Impossible Burger, a popular meat alternative, uses a lab-engineered non-meat-based heme molecule to help its product look and taste more like a traditional beef hamburger. The difference, according to an environmental analysis by independent auditor Quantis, is that production of one Impossible Burger patty uses 96 percent less land and 87 percent less water as compared to one beef patty, while also releasing 89 percent less carbon into the atmosphere. Such advances show just how significant synthetic biology’s benefits can be.

Investing in the Future

Synthetic biology is a national priority

The U.S. government took an early interest in synthetic biology research, with the National Science Foundation (NSF) providing a $37 million, 10-year grant in 2006 to fund a national Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center. DARPA followed suit with multiple programs focused on synthetic biology. From 2008 to 2014, estimates suggest the government invested $820 million in synthetic biology research, spread across the NSF, the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The U.S. government underscored its intention to accelerate the growth of synthetic biology research when the White House issued an executive order in September 2022, launching a national biotechnology and biomanufacturing initiative that places synthetic biology as a centerpiece of our strategies for sustainability, competitiveness, and economic growth across all levels of government. The order’s impact has the potential to be far reaching including: significant investments to develop medicines and commodities, reduce waste, and advance sustainable farming, while also mitigating climate change impacts.

A Brief History

History in the Making


The roots of synthetic biology are planted with a landmark investigation by researchers François Jacob and Jacques Monod, whose study of E. coli led them to posit the existence of regulatory circuits that underpin the response of a cell to its environment.

January 2000

Two side-by-side reports are published by researchers at Boston University and Princeton University showing that biological protein parts can be engineered into genetic circuits to carry out designed functions.

January 2003

MIT launches an independent study course in which students develop biological devices to make cells blink; the following year the course evolves into a summer competition known as iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machines). Northwestern would go on to launch its first iGEM program in 2010.

June 2004

The first international conference for the field, Synthetic Biology 1.0, is held at MIT; future conferences in Switzerland and Hong Kong would help to establish the field’s global growth.

May 2006

BioBricks Foundation is established as a nonprofit organization to catalog and standardize synthetic biology parts, providing a database of resources for scientists and researchers.

July 2006

Funded by a 10-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC) is founded to advance research, innovation, training, and education in synthetic biology. In this time, SynBERC trains and provides early career support to future Northwestern synthetic biology faculty.

May 2013

The World Health Organization approves the use of a semi-synthetic, non-plant-derived version of the antimalarial drug artemisinin as a low-cost alternative to treat malaria in developing nations—the first large-scale synthetic biology commercial endeavor.

July 2013

The US Department of Energy prepares a report to Congress on synthetic biology, offering a comprehensive plan for federally supported research and development in support of energy and environmental goals.

March 2016

Northwestern University launches its interdisciplinary Center for Synthetic Biology (CSB).

June 2016

A group of leading scientists, including Northwestern CSB faculty, proposes a large-scale synthetic biology initiative, leading to the creation of the Human Genome Project-Write, which is focused on the synthesis of human genomes.

March 2018

Northwestern University receives an NSF grant to fund a 10-week summer research experience in synthetic biology for undergraduate students, the first synthetic biology-focused, NSF-funded program of its kind.

September 2018

After SynBERC’s 10-year funding grant ends, Northwestern CSB faculty help found the Engineering Biology Research Consortium with an NSF award to support and sustain the impact of research, products, discoveries, and ideas from the synthetic biology community.

July 2020

Northwestern University receives a $3 million NSF grant to support Synthesizing Biology Across Scales (SynBAS), a program focused on convergent synthetic biology training for graduate students, another first-of-its-kind synthetic biology-focused program.

September 2022

The United States launches a national biotechnology and biomanufacturing initiative.