This glossary provides a quick reference for (synthetic) biology-related terms. It does not go into depth on the terms, but can be useful if you are trying to understand some basic concepts in synbio. The compilation of the dictionary is an ongoing activity of the Synenergene project.


Amino Acid

The building blocks of proteins, comprising a carboxyl group, an amine group, and a variable side chain. (The Health Council of the Netherlands 2008)



Standardised ‘biological building blocks’ used for the construction of components that carry out specific tasks, which can in turn be used to construct more complex biological systems. (The Health Council of the Netherlands 2008)



The term biosecurity refers to the protection, control of, and accountability for high-consequence biological agents and toxins, and critical relevant biological materials and information within laboratories to prevent unauthorized possession, loss, theft, misuse, diversion, or intentional release. (OSTP n.d.)



A threadlike, gene-carrying structure found in the nucleus. Each chromosome consists of one very long DNA molecule and associated proteins. (Pearson Educational n.d.)



A unit of three successive nucleotides on messenger RNA which codes on the ribosome for a single amino acid. (The Health Council of the Netherlands 2008)


Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA)

A nucleic acid that contains the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of all known living organisms with the exception of some viruses. The main role of DNA molecules is the long-term storage of information. (The National Academies 2011)


DNA synthesis

A technology that enables the de novo generation of genetic sequences that specifically program cells for the expression of a given protein. (The National Academies 2011)


Dual use

Dual use: Dual use goods are products and technologies normally used for civilian purposes but which may have military applications. (European Commission n.d.)


Ethical, Legal, and Social Issues (ELSI)

The acronym ELSI (is) used to refer very broadly to research on the ethical, legal, and social issues that accompany scientific and technical change. (Thompson 2010)



A class of proteins serving as catalysts, chemical agents that change the rate of a reaction without being consumed by the reaction. (Pearson Educational n.d.)



To "express" a gene is to cause it to function. A gene which encodes a protein will, when expressed, be transcribed and translated to produce that protein. A gene which encodes an RNA rather than a protein (for example, a rRNA gene) will produce that RNA when expressed. (Lyons 1998).            



A discrete unit of hereditary information consisting of a specific nucleotide sequence in DNA (or RNA, in some viruses). (Pearson Educational n.d.)



The complete genetic composition of an organism (e.g., human, bacterium, protozoan, helminth, fungus), contained in a chromosome or set of chromosomes or in a DNA or RNA molecule (e.g., a virus). (The National Academies 2011)


Messenger RNA (mRNA)

A type of RNA synthesized from DNA in the genetic material that attaches to ribosomes in the cytoplasm and specifies the primary structure of a protein. (Pearson Educational n.d.)



The organic processes (in a cell or organism) that are necessary for life; see (accessed July 20, 2010). (The National Academies 2011)



Genetic change that can occur either randomly or at an accelerated rate through exposure to radiation or certain chemicals (mutagens) and may lead to change in structure of the protein coded by the mutated gene. (The National Academies 2011)



The building blocks of DNA and RNA, consisting of three components: a phosphate group, a C5 sugar and a base (purine or pyrimidine). (The Health Council of the Netherlands 2008)



An organism capable of causing disease. (The National Academies 2011)



A small cellular inclusion consisting of a ring of DNA that is not in a chromosome but is capable of autonomous replication. (The National Academies 2011)



An enzyme, such as DNA polymerase or RNA polymerase, that catalyzes the synthesis of a polymer from its subunits. (Pearson Educational n.d.)


Polymerase chain reaction (PCR)

A scientific technique in molecular biology to amplify a single or a few copies of a piece of DNA across several orders of magnitude, generating thousands to millions of copies of a particular DNA sequence. (The National Academies 2011)


Precautionary Principle

Precaution means that the absence   of scientific certainty - or controversely the scientific uncertainty - as to the existence or the extent of a risk should henceforward no longer delay the adoption of preventive measures to protect the environment. (De Sadeleer 2010)



A three-dimensional biological polymer constructed from a set of 20 different monomers called amino acids. (Pearson Educational n.d.)


Public engagement

A broad range of mechanisms and activities aimed to "involve individual members of the community in making decisions about the management of economic, environmental, and health risks and benefits. (Besley 2010)


Responsible innovation

Responsible innovation means taking care of the future through collective stewardship of science and innovation in the present. (Stilgoe et al. 2013)


Ribonucleic acid (RNA)

A biologically important type of molecule that consists of a long chain of nucleotide units. Each nucleotide consists of a   nitrogenous base, a ribose sugar, and a phosphate. RNA is very similar to DNA, but differs in a few important structural details: in the cell, RNA is usually single-stranded, while DNA is usually double-stranded; RNA nucleotides contain ribose while DNA contains deoxyribose (a type of ribose that lacks one oxygen atom); and RNA has the base uracil rather than thymine that is present in DNA. (The National Academies 2011)


Ribosomal RNA (rRNA)

The most abundant type of RNA. Together with proteins, it forms the structure of ribosomes that coordinate the sequential coupling of tRNA molecules to the series of mRNA codons. (Pearson Educational n.d.)



A cell organelle constructed in the nucleolus, functioning as the site of protein synthesis in the cytoplasm. Consists of rRNA and protein molecules, which make up two subunits. (Pearson Educational n.d.)



As a noun, the sequence of a DNA is a buzz word for the structure of a DNA molecule, in terms of the sequence of bases it contains. As a verb, "to sequence" is to determine the structure of a piece of DNA; i.e. the sequence of nucleotides it contains. (Lyons 1998)


Soft Law

Rules of conduct which, in principle, have no legally binding force but which, nevertheless, may have practical effects. (Snyder 1993)


Technology Assessment

The term technology assessment (TA) is a widely used designation of systematic approaches and methods to scientifically investigate the conditions for and the consequences of technology, and to denote their societal evaluation. (Grunwald 2010)



The process of creating a complementary RNA copy of a sequence of DNA. Both RNA and DNA are nucleic acids, which use base pairs of nucleotides as a complementary language that can be converted back and forth from DNA to RNA by the action of the correct enzymes. During transcription, a DNA sequence is read by RNA polymerase, which produces a   complementary, antiparallel RNA strand. As opposed to DNA replication, transcription results in an RNA complement that includes uracil (U) in all instances where thymine (T) would have occurred in a DNA complement. (The National Academies 2011)



The reaction that converts RNA-templated information to protein. This reaction is catalyzed by ribosomes. (BioBuilding n.d.)


Transfer RNA (tRNA)

An RNA molecule that functions as an interpreter between nucleic acid and protein language by picking up specific amino acids and recognizing the appropriate codons in the mRNA. (Pearson Educational n.d.)



The glossary was written by Simone Arnaldi.



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BioBuilding (n.d.). Glossary. Available from Synthetic_Biology_for_Students:_Glossary

De Sadeleer N. (2010). The Precautionary Principle in EU Law. AV&S 5, 173-174.

European Commission (n.d.). Dual use. Available from (Retrieved Jan 13, 2014)

Grunwald A. (2010). Technology assessment. In D. Guston (Ed.), Encyclopedia of nanoscience and society. (pp. 752-753). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi:

Health Council of the Netherlands (2008). Synthetic biology: creating opportunities. The Hague: The Health Council of the Netherlands.

National Academies (2011). The Science and Applications of Synthetic and Systems Biology: Workshop Summary. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. Available from (Retrieved, Jan 13, 2014)

Lyons R.H. (1998). A Molecular Biology Glossary. Available from (Retrieved, Jan 13, 2014)

OSTP - Office of Science and Technology Policy (n.d.). Biosecurity. Available from (Retrieved Jan 13, 2014)

Pearson Education (n.d.). Glossary of Biology Terms. Available from (Retrieved Jan 11, 2014).

Snyder F. (1993). The Effectiveness of European Community Law: Institutions, Processes, Tools and Techniques. Modern Law Review 56, 19-54.

Stilgoe J., Owen R., Macnaghten P. (2013). Developing a framework for responsible innovation. Research Policy 42, 1568–1580.

Thompson, P. (2010). Ethical, legal, and social issues (elsi). In S. Priest (Ed.), Encyclopedia of science and technology communication. (pp. 271-274). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: