Principles of synthetic biology

Kathryn L. Garner*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)
6 Downloads (Pure)


In synthetic biology, biological cells and processes are dismantled and reassembled to make novel systems that do useful things. Designs are encoded by deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA); DNA makes biological (bio-)parts; bioparts are combined to make devices; devices are built into biological systems. Computers are used at all stages of the Design-Build-Test-Learn cycle, from mathematical modelling through to the use of robots for the automation of assembly and experimentation. Synthetic biology applies engineering principles of standardisation, modularity, and abstraction, enabling fast prototyping and the ready exchange of designs between synthetic biologists working around the world. Like toy building blocks, compatible modular designs enable bioparts to be combined and optimised easily; biopart specifications are shared in open registries. Synthetic biology is made possible due to major advances in DNA sequencing and synthesis technologies, and through knowledge gleaned in the field of systems biology. Systems biology aims to understand biology across scales, from the molecular and cellular, up to tissues and organisms, and describes cells as complex information-processing systems. By contrast, synthetic biology seeks to design and build its own systems. Applications of synthetic biology are wide-ranging but include impacting healthcare to improve diagnosis and make better treatments for disease; it seeks to improve the environment by finding novel ways to clean up pollution, make industrial processes for chemical synthesis sustainable, and remove the need for damaging farming practices by making better fertilisers. Synthetic biology has the potential to change the way we live and help us to protect the future of our planet.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)791-811
Number of pages21
JournalEssays in Biochemistry
Issue number5
Early online date2 Nov 2021
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2021


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