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Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center

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Synberc is a multi-university research center established in 2006 with a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to help lay the foundation for synthetic biology Our mission is threefold: 

  1. develop the foundational understanding and technologies to build biological components and assemble them into integrated systems to accomplish many particular tasks;
  2. train a new cadre of engineers who will specialize in engineering biology; and
  3. engage the public about the opportunities and challenges of engineering biology.

Just as electrical engineers have made it possible for us to assemble computers from standardized parts (hard drives, memory cards, motherboards, and so on), we envision a day when biological engineers will be able to systematically assemble biological components such as sensors, signals, pathways, and logic gates in order to build bio-based systems that solve real-world problems in health, energy, and the environment.

In our work, we apply engineering principles to biology to develop tools that improve how fast — and how well — we can go through the design-test-build cycle. These include smart fermentation organisms that can sense their environment and adjust accordingly, and multiplex automated genome engineering, or MAGE, designed for large-scale programming and evolution of cells. We also pursue the discovery of applications that can lead to significant public benefit, such as synthetic artemisinin, an anti-malaria drug that costs less and is more effective than the current plant-derived treatment.

History and future

In 2006, motivated by the possibility that microbes could be systematically engineered to produce virtually any product from sugar, a group of leading synthetic biologists successfully proposed Synberc to the National Science Foundation. Synberc is a ten-year multi-institutional research project to help lay the foundations for the emerging field of synthetic biology. Since its founding, Synberc has grown a trusted network of academic researchers working on foundational tools and technologies. Our research program is creating the enabling tools and technologies that will give rise to many bio-based applications in the coming years. Synberc’s integral and unique Policy & Practices group develops and promotes leading examples of responsible synthetic biology in four areas: biosafety and biosecurity; environmental applications and regulation; ownership, sharing and innovation; and community and leadership development. Synberc has also built a robust industry partnership that includes nearly 50 small and large companies, non-profits, and industry associations. The community convenes twice a year (once on the East Coast and once on the West Coast) to share and discuss progress in research.

With its federal funding scheduled to end in 2016, Synberc has called upon federal government to work with academic and industrial researchers to launch a national initiative in engineering biology. This would sustain and coordinate federal investments, coordinate regulatory and safety policies, catalyze public-private partnerships, and encourage education programs to create leaders in biotechnology practice and policy. Synberc has embarked on a sustainability planning effort to determine how to sustain itself and the most effective role Synberc can play at the national and international levels in the future.

Synberc's headquarters are at UC Berkeley and co-located with the Joint BioEnergy Institute in Emeryville, CA.