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Realizing the potential of synthetic biology


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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G.M.C. is supported by grants from the US Department of Energy (DOE), US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), US National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), US National Science Foundation (NSF) and Personal Genome Project (PGP). C.D.S. is supported by funds from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), NSF, DARPA, Human Frontiers Science Program (HFSP), and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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Correspondence to Michael B. Elowitz, Christina D. Smolke, Christopher A. Voigt or Ron Weiss.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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(Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats). An adaptive immune system that is found in bacteria and archaea, which is based on an RNA-guided nuclease (Cas9). Components of the CRISPR system are being repurposed to provide powerful, flexible and precise genome engineering, and regulatory systems across diverse species.

Genetic switches

Natural or synthetic systems for regulating gene expression in response to one or more external or internal signals. The output of genetic switches is often a complex logical function of input signals that in many cases can provide a persistent response to transient inputs or other capabilities.

Genomically recoded organisms

(GROs). Changing every instance in a genome of one or more of the 64 codons in the genetic code for higher safety and productivity.

Multiplex-automated genome engineering

(MAGE). Efficient genome editing that is capable of making dozens of changes per genome and billions of genomes by inserting short (90 bases long) single-stranded DNA into the cellular replication fork with one or more DNA changes.


A technique to control and perturb cellular behaviour using light and genetically encoded light-sensitive proteins. It has been extensively used to precisely control neuronal activity spatially and temporally through light.


Produces oscillations that underlie diverse biological behaviours from neurobiology to multicellular development. Synthetic biology has shown that remarkably simple circuit designs can produce clock-like oscillations of protein levels in individual living cells.

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Church, G., Elowitz, M., Smolke, C. et al. Realizing the potential of synthetic biology. Nat Rev Mol Cell Biol 15, 289–294 (2014).

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