“Principles of Synthetic Biology” Goes National—then Global—with Open Online Course

Achievement date: 

Researchers supported by the NSF-funded Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (Synberc), headquartered at the University of California (UC) Berkeley, have created and made widely available the first course drawn directly from Engineering Research Center (ERC) content. Adam Arkin of UC Berkeley and Ron Weiss of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) developed the massive open online course (MOOC)—Principles of Synthetic Biology—to introduce the basics of synthetic biology and much more to a wide audience. Initiated in 2014, the course is now available world-wide, with more than 15,000 students registered, easily exceeding initial registration expectations.


At the heart of synthetic biology is the aim to make the engineering of new biological functions predictable, safe, and quick to aid in creating biological applications of benefit to society. The field is well on the way to becoming one of the most important and profound ways by which we can understand and manipulate our physical world for desired purposes. While synthetic biology builds upon existing fields (such as genetic engineering, systems biology, and non-biological fields such as computer science), it represents its own new engineering discipline. This course helps open the door to students who can contribute to achieving the immense promise of synthetic biology and others who wish to understand its potential. The course introduces the field and its natural scientific and engineering basis, and concisely covers relevant topics in cellular and molecular biology and biophysics, dynamical and engineering systems, and design and operation of natural and synthetic circuits. Via video feed each Fall, “Principles of Synthetic Biology” has been offered simultaneously at UC Berkeley, attracting 60 to 75 students each year. In addition, Synberc investigators Arkin and Weiss are currently adapting materials from the course as the basis for a synthetic biology textbook intended for upper-level undergraduate and lower-level graduate students.


During the course’s Fall 2014 in-classroom offering, the authors recorded their weekly lectures and created problem sets and exams for later online use. This course content and additional materials were then edited and adapted for use on the edX online education platform. After nearly two years of significant investment of time and effort—and test-driving the online course in the U.S.¾Principles of Synthetic Biology is now offered to a global audience via edX. As part of the online course, lecture notes prepared with the help of graduate student teaching assistants were written for each lecture video segment that was posted online. It is hoped that the materials and online course will lead to a modular electronic textbook in the years to come.

The course introduction reflects the excitement and enthusiasm that Arkin and Weiss bring to this initiative. ‘Do you like biology, biotechnology, or genetic engineering? Are you interested in computer science, engineering, or design? Synthetic biology is an innovative field bringing together these subject areas and many more to create useful tools to solve everyday problems. Join us as we explore the field of synthetic biology: its past, present, and promising future!’

Specific outcomes for participants include knowledge of:

  • Modern techniques in DNA assembly and regulation of gene expression and protein activity
  • How to design basic biological circuits
  • Principles for creating large-scale biological circuits and regulatory networks
  • Basic ODE modeling of biological systems with MATLAB