Special Feature: Opportunities in Synthetic Biology


The concept of synthesizing life has been around for quite a while in scientific–and science fiction–literature, but only in the past 5 years have rapid advances in DNA synthesis techniques allowed the field to crystallize. As a consequence of its promise for elucidating basic science and its huge potential for meeting pressing human needs, the nascent field is growing as universities, funding agencies, and national governments pour money into new research centers, research networks, and conferences.

The field offers many opportunities for early-career scientists–as long as they are prepared to abandon doctrine for a more open-minded approach to doing science. The field is so new that its definition is not yet set in stone. Plenty of space remains for biologists, engineers, chemists, physicists, mathematicians, computer scientists–even philosophers–to help define the field. In synthetic biology you can still be a pioneer.

So where exactly are the opportunities, and how do you embark? provides an overview of the current state of the field and some tips on how to gain the skills you’ll need.

Although the range of projects tackled under the umbrella of synthetic biology is vast, dedicated training programs remain rare, so most–or at least many–scientists find their own way in. In a microbiologist, a mechanical engineer, and a chemist tell Science Careers how they got into the field.

In our (mp3), produced by Contributing Editor Kate Travis, you can hear firsthand from three synthetic biologists: a mechanical engineer who participated in the international Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, a computer scientist at Nottingham University in the United Kingdom, and a senior biologist at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland.

Finally, to complete this introduction to synthetic biology, here’s a (nonexhaustive) list of further resources:

of the Biological Nanostructures Facility at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) of the Chemical Engineering Division at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Florida of the Department of Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) at the FAS Center for Systems Biology at Harvard University of the Protein and Nucleic Acid Chemistry Division at Cambridge University of the Biomedical Engineering Department at Boston University of the Genetics of Bacterial Genomes Unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, France at the Spanish National Center of Biotechnologyin Madrid of the Division of Biology at Caltech of the Department of Bioengineering at Stanford University of the J. Craig Venter Institute of the Biochemistry Laboratory at thein Paris, France of the Department of Chemical Engineering at MIT at the Joint BioEnergy Institute in California of the Department of Bioengineering at the Imperial College of Science, Technology, and Medicine in London, the United Kingdom of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT of the Department of Biopharmaceutical Sciences at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) of the School of Computer Science at the University of Nottingham, the United Kingdom. of the Chemical Engineering Department at the University of Michigan of the Roma Tre University in Italy of the Cavanilles Institute for Biodiversity and Evolutionary Biology in Valencia, Spain of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University , at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) Zurich of the Division of Biological Sciences at the University of Chicago of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT at the Scripps Research Institute in California at the Biotechnology Center (BIOTEC) of the Technische Universität Dresden in Germany of the Center for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona, Spain of the Department of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School of the J. Craig Venter Institute in Maryland of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at Caltech of the Biomedical Engineering Department at Duke University of the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre in Madrid of the Department of Pharmaceutical Chemistry at UCSF Updated: 23 October 2008  The(SynBERC), a multi-institution initiative in California  The  Theat Harvard University  Thein Emeryville, California  Thein Rockville, Maryland  Theat the University of Groningen in the Netherlands  Imperial College London’s  The(BBF)  Thecommunity    The(SynBioSys) in the Paris region  The European Commission 18 FP6 research and policyin synthetic biology in Europe  FP7-funded(Targeting environmental pollution with engineered microbial systems à la carte) consortium   synthetic biology research networks in the United Kingdom  The(IASB)  The international Genetically Engineered Machinecompetition  Courses offered by  A list of courses  : A fun crash course in the fundamentals of synthetic biology  A UK-funded review on   in PLoS Biology   in Science     inMolecular Systems Biology   (this year’sclosed its doors earlier this week but watch that space)  Synthetic Biologyat the Centre for Synthetic Biology in the Netherlands on 6-8 November 2008   at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany, on 7-8 November 2008  Thein Saint Feliu, Spain on 20 March-3 April 2009   in synthetic biology, systems biology, and bioinformatics at Cambridge University, on 23-25 March 2009   conference in London, 28-29 April 2009   in Denver, Colorado, on 9-12 August 2009   in Irvine, California, on 18-21 November 2009

Getting Ready for Synthetic Biology

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