Realizing the potential of synthetic biology

Journal name:
Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology
Year published:
Published online


Synthetic biology, despite still being in its infancy, is increasingly providing valuable information for applications in the clinic, the biotechnology industry and in basic molecular research. Both its unique potential and the challenges it presents have brought together the expertise of an eclectic group of scientists, from cell biologists to engineers. In this Viewpoint article, five experts discuss their views on the future of synthetic biology, on its main achievements in basic and applied science, and on the bioethical issues that are associated with the design of new biological systems.


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Author information


  1. The Department of Genetics, Harvard Medical School, Harvard University, 77 Avenue Louis Pasteur, Boston, Massachusetts 02115, USA.

    • George M. Church
  2. The Division of Biology and Biological Engineering and Department of Applied Physics, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, California Institute of Technology (Caltech), M/C 114-96, Pasadena, California 91125, USA.

    • Michael B. Elowitz
  3. The Stanford University School of Medicine, 473 Via Ortega, University of Stanford, Stanford, California 94305, USA.

    • Christina D. Smolke
  4. The Synthetic Biology Center, Department of Biological Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), 500 Technology Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139, USA.

    • Christopher A. Voigt
  5. The Synthetic Biology Center, Department of Biological Engineering, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), NE47-223, 500 Technology Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139, USA.

    • Ron Weiss

Competing interests statement

The authors declare no competing interests.

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Author details

  • George M. Church

    George M. Church is Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, Harvard University, Boston, Massachusetts, USA, Director of, the world's only open-access human genome and trait resource. The methods used in his Ph.D. (awarded in 1984) led to the first microbial genome sequence in 1994. His work on 'next-generation' sequencing, oligo synthesis and cell engineering resulted in companies in medical diagnostics, therapeutics and synthetic chemicals; as well as in privacy, biosafety and biosecurity policies. He directs a US National Institutes of Health (NIH) Center for Excellence in Genomic Science. He is National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering member and Bower Laureate, and has co-authored 330 papers, 60 patents and one book (Regenesis).
    George M. Church’s homepage

  • Michael B. Elowitz

    Michael B. Elowitz is an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Professor of Biology, Biological Engineering and Applied Physics at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Pasadena, USA. He created the Repressilator, a synthetic oscillatory gene circuit, and showed how gene expression 'noise' and its functional roles can be analysed in individual cells. His laboratory uses synthetic biology, quantitative time-lapse movies and mathematical modelling to understand the design principles of genetic circuits operating in cells and tissues; in systems ranging from bacteria to mammalian cells. He is a Macarthur fellow and recipient of the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP) Nakasone prize.
    Michael B. Elowitz’s homepage

  • Christina D. Smolke

    Christina D. Smolke is Associate Professor, Associate Chair of Education and William M. Keck Foundation Faculty Scholar in the Department of Bioengineering at University of Stanford, California, USA. Her research programme develops foundational tools that drive transformative advances in our ability to engineer biology. For example, her group has led the development of a novel class of biological input/output (I/O) devices, thereby fundamentally changing how we interact with and programme biology. Her group uses these tools to drive transformative advances in diverse areas such as cellular therapies, natural product biosynthesis and drug discovery. She is an inventor on more than ten patents and her research programme has been honoured with numerous awards, including the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director's Pioneer Award, the World Technology Network (WTN) Award in Biotechnology and TR35 Award.
    Christina D. Smolke’s homepage

  • Christopher A. Voigt

    Christopher A. Voigt has been a professor in the Department of Biological Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, since 2010, where he co-directs the Center for Synthetic Biology and founded the MIT-Broad Foundry. He serves as the Editor-in-Chief of the American Chemical Society journal, ACS Synthetic Biology. Before MIT, he was at a faculty in the Pharmaceutical Chemistry Department at the University of California, San Francisco, USA.

  • Ron Weiss

    Ron Weiss is a professor in the Department of Biological Engineering and in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, USA. He founded and currently serves as the Director of the Synthetic Biology Center at MIT. He received his Ph.D. from MIT in 2001, and held a faculty appointment at Princeton University, New Jersey, USA, between 2001 and 2009. His research helped to pioneer the field of synthetic biology through the computational design, construction and experimental testing of several fundamental synthetic gene circuits that carry out digital logic, analogue control and intercellular communication. More recently, the Weiss laboratory has also focused on mammalian synthetic biology, with a combined emphasis on the engineering foundation and several therapeutic application areas, including programmed tissue engineering, diabetes and cancer therapy.

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