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Synthetic Biology Minor for Master's Students

Minor Description:

Synthetic biology aims to understand and harness the rules of life across multiple scales toward engineering goals. From molecules, to cells, to organisms, to communities, life all around us presents an enormous diversity of biological functions that span multiple spatiotemporal scales. These functions—from the abilities of cells to synthesize small molecules, remediate environmental contaminants, build, and maintain ecosystems, and differentiate to protect our immune systems—have exciting potential to become components of sustainable solutions for meeting pressing global challenges. The field of synthetic biology has emerged to harness this potential of biology. Given the promise of synthetic biology to tackle pressing societal challenges, there is growing demand for new training programs that address challenges to traditional training in synthetic biology and that meet the needs of a growing STEM workforce.   

Rather than focusing on traditional topic-based learning, our curriculum emphasizes the physical and chemical principles of biological function in the context of building biological systems to understand the rules of life. Students begin their training through an introduction course that teach them the principles of synthetic biology and an introduction to the scales framework that uses real-world case studies—recent landmark thrusts to build biological solutions to compelling societal challenges—to deconstruct biological phenomena along biological scales: molecular, circuit/network, cell/cell- free system, communities, and ecosystems. They will then partake in a selected elective course of their choosing, from the courses listed below.  

All three courses may be double counted toward MS degree requirements, if this is permitted by the home MS program/department. 


Who May Apply: 

The minor is intended for MS students. If you are enrolled as a PhD student, please see the TGS certificate, in Synthetic Biology. If you are an MS student, either in a professional/McCormick MS program or in a program in The Graduate School, you may pursue this minor with the permission of your home program. 

Minor Requirements: 

The following requirements are in addition to, or further elaborate upon, those requirements outlined in The Graduate School Policy Guide.  

The Synthetic Biology Minor requires students take at least 3 courses. In addition to meeting the PhD/MS requirements of their chosen departments, students will be required to complete the coursework described below:  

Elective Courses 

Elective courses are organized into scale areas and methods/skills courses that reinforce the scales framework for synthetic biology training. Each course provides rigorous training in the fundamentals of physics, chemistry, and biology needed to understand biological function at a particular scale and technical approaches that can be used to apply the concepts of synthetic biology to engineer and manipulate the functions at that scale.   

 Several courses have been specifically developed as part of our NSF NRT training program to meet these training concepts and are highly recommended for meeting the elective requirement. These courses are marked as preferred:  

In addition to these preferred courses, students are also able to meet the elective requirement by taking a course that meet the training goals of a particular scale. We describe these goals below along with courses that meet these criteria.   

Molecular scale courses cover the physical, chemical, and mathematical principles required for understanding the molecular basis of life and its use in biotechnology. Appropriate topics for these courses include biophysics of molecular folding, free energy landscapes, kinetic molecular folding, charge screening, molecular interactions, RNA folding, protein folding, enzymology, and others. Courses that use these principles to teach concepts related to RNA and protein design and experimental strategies for RNA and protein engineering are encouraged. Courses that meet these criteria include:   

Network/circuit scale courses enable students to understand biological, mathematical, and biophysical principles underpinning the mechanisms that biological systems utilize to propagate information, coordinate physiological states, and implement control over those states.  These courses cover topics such as genetic circuits, metabolism, dynamical systems, network theory and mechanisms for intracellular and intercellular signaling and communication.   

Cell/cell-free systems scale courses cover biophysical and chemical principles involved in engineering biological parts within living and cell-free systems. These courses can include topics such as cellular and cell-free enzymatic biosynthesis, the implementation of genetic circuits in cell and cell-free systems, transport phenomenon at the cellular scale, interactions between cells/tissues and biomaterials, techniques for the manipulation of systems at this scale, and the use of cell-free systems as platforms for discovery and diagnostics.    

Biological communities scale courses will cover the biological, biochemical and mathematical principles required for understanding the emergent behavior of cellular communities. These courses can include topics such as microbial ecology and metagenomics, prediction of emergent microbial community dynamics, interspecies metabolic interaction, tissue-scale phenomena such as tissue engineering, microbial ecology, and modeling of biological communities including agent-based models and nonlinear differential equation models.   

Societal scale courses will teach students the skills needed to quantitatively estimate the needs, market sizes and viability of synthetic biology technologies including frameworks of field trials, user testing, and stakeholder analysis. These courses can also be used to address topics such as bioethics related to synthetic biology.     

Methods/skills courses teach students technical approaches that are important for applying concepts learned in other courses to their research or future careers. These courses can cover both experimental and computational approaches.   


Further Questions:

For additional information, you may contact the Center for Synthetic Biology's NRT program at

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