Learn Synthetic Biology

Synthetic biology has been around in one form or another for a while now, but it’s still a nascent field. So here are the few resources I’ve found to help you learn synthetic biology. A quick reminder- you’ve got to have a handle on the basics (chemistry, biology, some genetics and molecular biology) since this field is very eclectic.

Learn Synthetic Biology

Online Course: MIT’s Online MOOC

Synthetic Biology MOOCIf you’ve got some of the basics down, there’s two places I’d direct you next. First would be an excellent online course done by edX.com in partnership with MIT. The course is called Principles of Synthetic Biology.

A quick note on this: edX’s courses are meant to be actual courses, in many ways, with you as a student interacting with the teacher and others in the class. As such, these courses have start dates and end dates. This course has ended and has not started again, so you won’t be having the full experience. That being said, you can access the archived videos and lecture materials.

Online Courses: Synthetic Biology One

Synthetic Biology Online CourseThe founder of Synthetic Biology One reached out to me a few days ago, which was awesome as this organization wasn’t even on my radar. Synthetic Biology One provides several free online synthetic biology courses designed to get you familiar with synthetic biology in the first course (there’s also a synthetic biology game to help introduce the concepts to you), and later courses walk you all the way through creating your first GMO. The founder, Jake Wintermute, has quirky and engaging sensibilities and a natural, easy flowing teaching style.

A few things to be aware of, the site has a few quirks of its own that could leave you feeling lost. After you register, you’ll want to enter the site again into your browser to get back to the home page or you’ll be stuck wandering around the site’s WordPress back-end. Also, make sure you actually “Enroll” for a class (there’s an icon on the upper-right) or the content of the course will not appear for you. Lastly, if you’re having issues opening up content, make sure you allow pop-ups on the site or things like the game and the course material will never open up (took me a few minutes to get what was happening there).

Quarterly Journal: Synthetic Biology- A Primer

Synthetic Biology BookThis was my first formal introduction into synthetic biology. Synthetic Biology: A Primer is written by the scientists and professors at the Imperial College of London, one of the few universities to offer an advanced degree in synthetic biology.

The book is excellent and brings you up to speed on many of the biology concepts you’ll need in order to understand how synthetic biology works. In fact, it’s not until about 1/3 of the way through the book that you start to dive into things like AND and OR gates, creating circuits, and avoiding interference, etc. This book isn’t quite for the novice in biology, but it is a good technical introduction for those new to synthetic biology.

Academic Papers: The PLOS Synthetic Biology Collection

This is for the advanced, and I’m only really going to mention it here and do a more thorough write-up of this resource later, but I just stumbled upon The PLOS Synthetic Biology Collection. It’s not a very structured way to learn, but once again, if you’ve got the basics down it can be a valuable resource to get into the weeds.

What is PLOS? Public Library of Science- a free to the public academic paper where researchers publish their experiments and findings with all the rigor you’d expect from an academic paper. Warning, academic papers can be thick reading, laced with enough jargon to kill a dozen undergrads in its most concentrated form. Handle with care.

Learn Synthetic Biology by Doing Synthetic Biology

Maybe it’s a bit trite, but it’s true- the best way to learn something is by doing it. Don’t spend all your time pouring over the theoretical. Get in and get your hands dirty. It’s the practical that will get you jobs, accolades, or even just a better understanding of the field. Here are two ways to actually do synthetic biology.

Meet-up with Some Biohackers

BioCurious Hacker SpaceCOBL_web_logo

Genspace logo



Probably the best way to learn synthetic biology, aside from actually getting a degree in it, would be to pair one of the above, such as the edX course, along with visiting and participating in a local biohacker group near you.

These biohacking groups usually have a monthly fee that is small for the amount of knowledge you can gain here. You’ll learn the protocols and get to jump in and help out with experiments and maybe design a biological circuit of your own.

Take note, while many of these groups have as part of their mission to help educate the public, some who go to these just have their own projects and own interests their working on, so when you show up, there’s likely to be a lot of projects, a lot of interests, and not necessarily someone who will act as your personal tutor. Also, these groups draw from the larger maker community, so some have their background in building hardware and coding software and their focus may be on building hardware that will make it easier for themselves and others to practice DIYbio.

Try a Synthetic Biology Virtual Lab

If all else fails, you can still do virtual synthetic biology. Don’t expect to create anything novel of your own, as this is guided learning, but you will get some virtual lab work in. The product I’m talking about is Labster’s virtual labs.

I featured Labster on my Learn Your Way Around the Lab post, but this deserves special highlighting here, because one of their classes is dedicated to synthetic biology. I haven’t tried this module out, so I can’t vouch for it; but if the experience is like their CSI module, you won’t be disappointed.

Get a Graduate Degree in Synthetic Biology

There’s always the traditional route. It happens to also be the most thorough, most time consuming, and most costly, but hey, you could make a career out of it.

At this point there aren’t that many schools that explicitly offer a degree in synthetic biology. That being said, the list is growing and in addition to that, I’ve noticed an increasing number who offer synthetic biology as one of their explicit tracks within their graduate programs. So while you may not get a masters in synthetic biology, you can walk away with a diploma in bioengineering with an emphasis in synthetic biology. It’s not what some are looking for, but it’s far better than nothing.

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