Building the bio toolkit

In the 1970s, the Berkeley-bred SPICE (Simulation Program with Integrated Circuit Emphasis) revolutionized microelectronics by creating a toolkit now used worldwide as the standard for circuit design. Our new Synthetic Biology Institute (SBI), launched on April 25, aims to repeat this feat with biological and chemical engineering.

The synthetic biology toolbox, as we see it, holds the technologies that will make the engineering of biology safer, more reliable, more predictable and, ultimately, standardized for global applications. These tools will build the engineered cells, microbes and biological systems that can perform beneficial functions and transform health, energy, environmental remediation, food production and global security.

For example, bioengineering professor Adam Arkin, SBI’s director, and his colleague Chris Anderson are engineering new organisms that can target a tumor and kill it, sparing surrounding tissue. Their team is aiming to make these complex microbes even better and more functional for fighting disease.

UC Berkeley and the Bay Area are served by world-class programs in synthetic biology, ranging from SynBERC (Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center), JBEI (Joint Bioenergy Institute) and QB3 (California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences) to work at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the Berkeley Stem Cell Center. What makes SBI different?

This new institute, led by Berkeley’s College of Engineering and College of Chemistry, focuses on defining and developing the field of synthetic biology, not on a single application. This gives us the potential to assume a place at the center of the vibrant activity already under way. Our planned outcomes include:

  • Robust, transferable tools to reliably engineer biosystems;
  • Standardized design rules for constructing enzymes, metabolic pathways, chromosomes and cells; and
  • Guidelines for addressing the ethical, environmental, economic, legal and social implications of synthetic biology.

Our membership model brings an industry perspective to the heart of this work, helping to move research quickly into workable solutions to real-world problems. Our founding industry member, Agilent Technologies, has been integral to our successful launch this spring.

I encourage you to follow the progress of SBI at its newly launched website, We are eager to engage new industry members, as well as the ongoing interest and support of Berkeley alumni and friends.

I welcome your thoughts and ideas.

S. Shankar Sastry
Dean and Roy W. Carlson Professor of Engineering
Director, Blum Center for Developing Economies
Email Dean Sastry

Topics: Bioengineering, EECS, Development engineering, Nanotechnology, Research