Prerequisites and Prior Knowledge

The content for Synthetic Biology One was adapted from a class for first-year master’s students. A typical student was 20-25 years old and had a bachelor’s degree in a life science (like biology or medicine) or a quantitative science (like engineering or math). We assume that our audience has one year of university-level study in biology and one year of university-level study in math.

However, our students normally come in from diverse backgrounds and no one starts with all the knowledge they need. We are used to teaching biology to computer programmers and calculus to medical students. Most people find that they are able to fill in the gaps as they go along. If you are brave enough to say “I don’t know calculus yet but I want to learn” then you belong here.


Hero.Coli is a game created at the CRI to teach the basics of synthetic biology. It was developed in parallel with the Synthetic Biology One course materials, to introduce key concepts and build intuition for DNA design. Also it's more fun than a barrel o' prokaryotes.

Players control a tiny cell in a living world, collecting and combining functional DNA fragments to gain abilities, solve puzzles and survive!

Project-Based Learning

Synthetic Biology One is organized around courses that are project-focused. Each one takes you through the creation of a specific biological product. The goal is to create a real tangible thing, with learning happening as a secondary by-product of creating. We want the projects to be cool enough to motivate you and challenging enough to give a sense of accomplishment.

Courses, Lessons, Units, Quizzes

course is a tutorial about how to create a specific biological device. Each project should be the equivalent of 2-4 hours of class instruction. This translates into about 1 hour of video content, because the videos are dense and make use of outside resources. Each course is divided into about 10 lessons.
A lesson is a short video (5-15 minutes) on a specific concept, theory, tool or experimental protocol. We have tried to keep the lessons as short and focused as possible, so that they fit into the busy schedule of today’s student on-the-go.
A unit is a collection of a few lessons on a common topic. Often we’ll present similar ideas from different perspectives, for example biological and mathematical. We want students to be actively making connections between related lessons.
A quiz comes at the end of every unit. They are a tool for you to check your understanding, not a way for us to rigorously judge you. They are intended to be “open internet,” meaning you should be doing outside research to find the answers.

Subject Tags

Lessons are classified by subject.


Biology lessons introduce concepts from anywhere in the life sciences. We discuss the structure, function, and interaction of molecules that produce the life of a cell. We also introduce the concepts that underlie laboratory methods and the interpretation of experimental results.


Lab videos demonstrate specific protocols and show core techniques in genetic engineering and molecular biology. Whenever possible, these videos are shot continuously and without editing or simplification. The goal is to make you familiar with the pace and organization of lab work, so you'll feel at home in a real lab.


Reading, writing, and editing DNA sequences is the essence of synthetic biology. To do this, we use DNA sequence editor software and other digital tools. These lessons feature screen recordings of detailed work with example DNA sequences on popular software.


Math is a tool for engineering. We use quantitative models to predict how changes in DNA will affect the behavior of an engineered cell. Sometimes we use math as a practical tool to calculate exact values. But more importantly we use mathematical thinking to give us insight and intuition for he important variables in a complex system.


Thanks to a collaboration with the redwire game engine, we will be able to present some of our lessons as online games. As if studying synthetic biology wasn’t already fun enough!


As scientists, we have human bodies, emotions, ambitions, personalities and social lives. How does that influence our research? The work that we do has an impact on other people and the world. How can we ensure that this impact is positive? These questions are part of everyday lab life and will be integrated with each course.

Scope and Time Commitment

Each course includes 1-2 hours of video content and should take about 4 hours to complete, including quizzes and outside research. The final program will include 10 courses and be roughly equivalent to a semester-long class at the master’s level.

Modularity and Remixing

Our lessons are designed to be as modular as possible. The videos are intentionally self-contained and do not reference specific information from other videos or from the text. This allows individual videos to be used as quick references by people not taking the whole course. This also means that videos can be re-mixed in multiple projects or even other courses. Project-specific content and protocol details are described in the text accompanying the videos, which is easier keep updated.

Things We Are Not

  • We don’t currently offer degrees, certificates or anything like that. We hope to get there soon.
  • Our protocols are not a great reference for practicing scientists. We try to illustrate key concepts, not to do things in the absolute most efficient way.
  • We don’t necessarily represent lab safety policies or regulations where you live. These things will vary by region and institution, so consult your local lab manager.
  • Our videos are not peer-reviewed or professionally copyedited, so we will sometimes make mistakes. We are sure that the internet will tell us about these mistakes, and we will post corrections as needed.