The Synthetic Biology Boom 

Northwestern Engineering's Master of Biotechnology Program (MBP) added a minor in the fast-growing field to help address everything from food supply shortages to vaccine

Northwestern University's emergence as a premier location for synthetic biology education took another step recently with the development of a minor for students in Northwestern Engineering's Master of Biotechnology Program (MBP). 

Synthetic biology uses tools and concepts from physics, engineering, and computer science to build new biological systems. Though it sounds futuristic, these technologies are already being applied in industries ranging from agriculture to medicine.  

Danielle Tullman-Ercek, Program Director of MBP

“The time is now for synthetic biology,” MBP director Danielle Tullman-Ercek said. “Synthetic biology isabout harnessing the power of biology to make it better, more robust, and scaling biology to solve society’s greatest challenges.” 

MBP students interested in synthetic biology already had an outlet to learn and perform research through the Center for Synthetic Biology. Now, MBP students also have the ability to minor in a field that is expanding rapidly. The global synthetic biology market is projected to grow from $9.5 billion in 2021 to more than $30 billion in 2026. 

Tullman-Ercek said the minor was created in part to give students something definitive to showcase on their resumes.  

“Hopefully it helps students brand themselves in this new field,” she said. “That’s really what this minor is all about – our students being able to show that they have expertise in this new and exciting field.”  

Synthetic biology as an industry already is having a major impact on the U.S. economy. It currently accounts for more than 5 percent of the Gross Domestic Product, with forecasts predicting a boom over the coming decade. Investment in the field has grown 40 percent year-over-over for the past five years, according to an August 2021 Fortune article.  

Advancements in the field are used to address global food supply issues, environmental contamination, and the need for personalized medicine. The speed that a COVID-19 vaccine was developed was also due in large part to synthetic biology. 

“At Northwestern, our leadership saw synthetic biology as having potential very early on, and they started recruiting people,” Tullman-Ercek said. “Since then, we have had such an impact that we have been able to attract some rising stars in the field and turned the heads of some luminaries in their own field who were already at Northwestern to turn their innovation and creativity toward synthetic biology.”  

There are 20 faculty members at Northwestern focusing their research on synthetic biology. This makes offering a minor in the field an easy-to-implement option, Tullman-Ercek said.  

Students must complete three courses to receive the synthetic biology minor. The first course gives a high-level overview of synthetic biology. Students then take a class where they learn the different scales or levels in the field and how each rolls up into a bigger one – from tiny molecular-level building blocks to more robust cellular systems, tissues, organisms and, ultimately, communities of organisms working together for a greater good.  

Think of it as learning how to build a city by starting with nails and boards and working your way up to walls, rooms, and individual homes before blending them together with essential services like police protections and a business district to form a well-balanced ecosystem.  

After that second course, students can take an elective diving deeper into one of those scales.  

Northwestern graduates are increasingly finding jobs with synthetic biology companies based on the work they did as students. Some are even launching their own startups and hiring their Northwestern classmates.  

Tullman-Ercek said she expects that to become even more common in the near future, and for the minor to grow in popularity.  

“From the Bronze Age to the Information Age, the world has seen a series of technological revolutions that have changed everything about our lives,” she said. “We are now on the cusp of another technological age, although for the first time, the revolutionary technology is life itself.” 

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