Synthetic biology in biofilms: Tools, challenges, and opportunities

Peter Tran, Arthur Prindle*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


The field of synthetic biology seeks to program living cells to perform novel functions with applications ranging from environmental biosensing to smart cell-based therapeutics. Bacteria are an especially attractive chassis organism due to their rapid growth, ease of genetic manipulation, and ability to persist across many environmental niches. Despite significant progress in bacterial synthetic biology, programming bacteria to perform novel functions outside the well-controlled laboratory context remains challenging. In contrast to planktonic laboratory growth, bacteria in nature predominately reside in the context of densely packed communities known as biofilms. While biofilms have historically been considered environmental and biomedical hazards, their physiology and emergent behaviors could be leveraged for synthetic biology to engineer more capable and robust bacteria. Specifically, bacteria within biofilms participate in complex emergent behaviors such as collective organization, cell-to-cell signaling, and division of labor. Understanding and utilizing these properties can enable the effective deployment of engineered bacteria into natural target environments. Toward this goal, this review summarizes the current state of synthetic biology in biofilms by highlighting new molecular tools and remaining biological challenges. Looking to future opportunities, advancing synthetic biology in biofilms will enable the next generation of smart cell-based technologies for use in medicine, biomanufacturing, and environmental remediation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere3123
JournalBiotechnology Progress
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 1 2021


  • bacteria
  • biofilms
  • synthetic biology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biotechnology


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