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Since its debut in 2000, synthetic biology has grown considerably and now constitutes a vibrant research discipline that promises to transform the world we live in. This Nature Special showcases specially commissioned content from Nature Reviews Microbiology, Nature Methods and Nature, which together charts the progression of the field from the design and construction of simple biological systems through to the development of more sophisticated systems and their applications, as well as the current challenges and opportunities. Together with a selection of related archive content from Nature Research, this Special celebrates the achievements of synthetic biology.