Synthetic Biology

PLEASE NOTE: New grant proposals are no longer being accepted in this program.
Photo: J. Craig Venter Institute

In May 2010, the J. Craig Venter Institute announced the creation of M. mycoides JCVI-syn1, the first synthetic cell capable of self-replication. Exploring the ethical and social dimensions of this and other scientific achievements was the primary aim of the Foundation's Synthetic Biology program.

Established in 2005, The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Synthetic Biology program is credited with laying the groundwork for a robust examination of, and a sustainable approach to, a rapidly advancing field with transformative potential for both science and industry.


Through its strategic grantmaking the Foundation supported the scholarly community and provided a framework within which the synthetic biology field could identify risks, articulate societal and ethical implications, and provide options for governance. The program invested nearly $10 million over the course of a decade to address the complexities of synthetic biology. Grantmaking concluded in 2014.

An important early grant resulted in the 2007 report by the J. Craig Venter Institute,“Synthetic Genomics: Options for Governance” as well as provided support for discussion of the societal implications of synthetic biology at five international synthetic biology SB X.0 meetings.

The Foundation funded the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars to identify risks, evaluate the adequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms, and educate policy makers, journalists and the public about synthetic biology. Its Synthetic Biology Project is a leading source of research, reports and discussion.

To engage the ethical community the Foundation funded The Hastings Center, an independent, nonpartisan, and nonprofit bioethics research institute, to identify and articulate ethical issues and provide a basis for informed policy discussion. Its 2009 report, Ethical Issues in Synthetic Biology, explores whether synthetic biology is intrinsically problematic.

In May 2010 President Obama asked the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to review the field of synthetic biology and identify appropriate ethical boundaries to maximize public benefits and minimize risks. The Commission heard from three dozen invited guests including many Sloan grantees who influenced its report, New Directions: The Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologies.

As part of the Foundation’s exit strategy in Synthetic Biology, the Foundation provided grants to support the Forum on Synthetic Biology at the National Academy of Sciences, the Leadership Excellence Accelerator Program (LEAP), and to a plan for an Institute for Synthetic Biology.

Grantmaking in this program has concluded.

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