Skip to main content

Synthetic Biology (Certificate)

Synthetic biology aims to understand and harness the rules of life toward engineering goals that benefit society. From molecules, to cells, to organisms, to biological communities and ecosystems, life all around us presents an enormous diversity of biological function that spans multiple spatiotemporal scales. These functions—from the abilities of cells to synthesize small molecules, remediate environmental contaminants, build, and maintain ecosystems, and differentiate to protect our immune systems—have great potential to become components of sustainable solutions for meeting pressing global challenges. 

The Synthetic Biology TGS certificate curriculum emphasizes the physical and chemical principles of biological function in the context of building biological systems to understand the rules of life. The Synthetic Biology TGS certificate includes two introduction courses that teach the principles of synthetic biology and uses real-world case studies—recent landmark thrusts to build biological solutions to compelling societal challenges—to deconstruct biological phenomena along biological scales: molecular, circuit/network, cell/cell-free system, communities, and ecosystems. The curriculum then takes three additional topical courses categorized along the scales framework that delve deeper into the principles and tools used to engineer biological systems on a particular scale. A course in responsible conduct of research completes the training for the graduate certificate in synthetic biology. 

A graduate certificate in synthetic biology will provide official recognition that students have received a multifaceted education in synthetic biology through Northwestern’s unique approach to synthetic biology training and prepare graduates to enter the biotechnology workforce. 

See Synthetic Biology Certificate Requirements for specific courses and procedures needed to complete this program. 

How to apply

Enrolled PhD and Master's students in The Graduate School may pursue this certificate with the permission of their program. In order to petition to have a Graduate Certificate awarded and appear on the transcript, students must submit the  Application for a Graduate Certificate  once all Graduate Certificate requirements have been completed, but no later than the time that the student files for graduation (in the final quarter of study). 

Who to contact

Please contact the program director, listed below, with questions about this program.  

You may also contact the Center for Synthetic Biology’s NSF NRT program for further questions at

The following requirements are in addition to, or further elaborate upon, those requirements outlined in The Graduate School Policy Guide

In addition to meeting the PhD/MS requirements of their chosen departments, students will be required to complete the coursework described below

  1. CHEM ENG 376 – Principles of Synthetic Biology
  2. CHEM ENG 395 – Deconstructing Synthetic Biology 
  3. Responsible conduct of research (any of the following):
    • IBiS 423 (Ethics in Biological Research)
    • GEN ENG 519 (Responsible Conduct of Research)
    • CHEM 519 (Responsible Conduct of Research Training)
    • DGP 494-1 (Colloquium on Integrity in Biomedical Research)
  4. Three elective courses chosen by students as described below. 

Elective Courses

Elective courses are organized into scale areas and methods/skills courses that reinforce the scales framework for synthetic biology training. Each course provides rigorous training in the fundamentals of physics, chemistry, and biology needed to understand biological function at a particular scale and technical approaches that can be used to apply the concepts of synthetic biology to engineer and manipulate the functions at that scale.  

Interfaces between scales will be emphasized by the requirement of students to choose three electives that cover at least two different categories below: 

  • Molecular scale courses cover the physical, chemical and mathematical principles required for understanding the molecular basis of life and its use in biotechnology. Appropriate topics for these courses include biophysics of molecular folding, free energy landscapes, kinetic molecular folding, charge screening, molecular interactions, RNA folding, protein folding, enzymology, and others. Courses that use these principles to teach concepts related to RNA and protein design and experimental strategies for RNA and protein engineering are encouraged.  
  • Network/circuit scale courses enable students to understand biological, mathematical, and biophysical principles underpinning the mechanisms that biological systems utilize to propagate information, coordinate physiological states, and implement control over those states.  These courses cover topics such as genetic circuits, metabolism, dynamical systems, network theory and mechanisms for intracellular and intercellular signaling and communication. 
  • Cell/cell-free systems scale courses cover biophysical and chemical principles involved in engineering biological parts within living and cell-free systems. These courses can include topics such as cellular and cell-free enzymatic biosynthesis, the implementation of genetic circuits in cell and cell-free systems, transport phenomenon at the cellular scale, interactions between cells/tissues and biomaterials, techniques for the manipulation of systems at this scale, and the use of cell-free systems as platforms for discovery and diagnostics.  
  • Biological communities scale courses will cover the biological, biochemical and mathematical principles required for understanding the emergent behavior of cellular communities. These courses can include topics such as microbial ecology and metagenomics, prediction of emergent microbial community dynamics, interspecies metabolic interaction, tissue-scale phenomena such as tissue engineering, microbial ecology, and modeling of biological communities including agent-based models and nonlinear differential equation models. 
  • Societal scale courses will teach students the skills needed to quantitatively estimate the needs, market sizes and viability of synthetic biology technologies including frameworks of field trials, user testing, and stakeholder analysis. These courses can also be used to address topics such as bioethics related to synthetic biology.  
  • Methods/skills courses teach students technical approaches that are important for applying concepts learned in other courses to their research or future careers. These courses can cover both experimental and computational approaches. 

For a full list of electives that satisfy these criteria please visit: