Engineering Biology & Materials Science

About Engineering Biology & Materials Science

Interdisciplinary Innovations at the Intersection of Materials Science and Engineering Biology

History of Materials Science and Engineering Biology

Materials science emerged as a coherent discipline around in the 1960s, when academic departments in metallurgy and ceramics expanded their focus beyond the materials important in the 19th and early 20th century. In the United States, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) played a crucial role in the growth of materials science (initially referred to as materials sciences, reflecting the highly interdisciplinary nature of its origin), by funding a series of university-based laboratories in the 1960s, some of which are still highly active today. Their mission was to “expand the national program of basic research and training in the materials sciences.”1“Interdisciplinary Laboratories for Basic Research in Materials Sciences,” John Clarke Slater papers, 1908–1976, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, PA. Although fundamentally synonymous with condensed matter physics, the distinguishing feature of materials science is the understanding of material properties for their engineering. The field now encompasses every class of materials from ceramics, polymers, semiconductors, magnets, biomaterials, soft-matter, nanomaterials, and composites. In recent years, materials science has become even more interdisciplinary, bringing together physics, chemistry, mathematics, biology, and engineering. Advancements in research have driven the development of new experimental tools as well as demonstrated the growing need for computational modeling and machine learning to discover and understand new phenomena of condensed matter, find and develop new materials, predict their properties, and benefit the world around us. This is encapsulated in the mission of the Materials Genome Initiative, which is a multi-agency initiative for the coordination of policy, resources, and infrastructure supporting U.S. institutions for the discovery, manufacture, and deployment of advanced materials.

The field of engineering biology (also referred to as synthetic biology) has revolutionized the way that we study and apply living systems. Engineering biology leverages chemistry, engineering, and computer science to design and construct new biomolecules and cells and transform existing biological systems. Engineering biology is built off four guiding principles: 1) We have advanced the tools and technologies to build functional biological systems from their basic parts, allowing us to model and test systems, learning from observations; 2) By manipulating systems at the molecular level, we can create better, or entirely novel, biological components and systems; 3) By designing and building biological systems, rather than only observing natural evolution, we can make them easier to study and interact with; and 4) Biology can be used as a technology to process information, produce energy, manufacture chemicals, and fabricate materials.

As a field, engineering biology has only existed for roughly 20 years2Meng, F., & Ellis, T. (2020). The second decade of synthetic biology: 2010-2020. Nature Communications, 11, 5174. View Publication, and is still considered an emerging discipline. However, strong foundational advances have quickly moved the field into a place where we can consider the influence engineering biology might have on other fields of science and engineering, and on applications to serve society. The potential for interfacing living and engineered biomolecules and cells with fabrics, electronics, and plastics can generate myriad new products, imbuing advanced capabilities, extending signaling and communication ranges, and solving industrial, health, agricultural, and environmental challenges. Breakthroughs in genetic and metabolic circuit engineering have helped us control cellular growth and function, define production from cells and biosystems, and manipulate or dictate how cells communicate. Incorporation of novel and non-native chemistries, amino acids, and biomolecules has greatly expanded the possibilities of what biology can hold and harness.

Engineering and producing materials from biology requires capitalizing on our ever-expanding abilities to engineer bacteria, fungi, and other cellular and cell-free systems to generate novel materials. Innovative companies such as Bolt Threads, Spiber, Ecovative Design, and bioMASON are delving into this space and demonstrate engineering biology’s capacity to mimic or replace known materials. Yet, most of this space is nascent and there is enormous potential to produce yet-unimagined materials from biology.

The Intersection of Biology and Materials

The engineering of biology can extend to the engineering of materials and devices that are made by and incorporate living matter. Biology already produces materials that we use and consume every day, such as wood and cotton. Biology also produces materials that we have yet to fully harness but hold incredible potential, such as spider silk, mycelia, and silica. Beyond this, engineering biology can enable wholly novel materials by incorporating new and non-natural chemistries, conformations, and functions. By leveraging engineering biology tools and techniques, materials science capabilities, and other technologies, we have the potential to generate or reproduce natural and novel materials under controlled conditions and study them in the laboratory, and the potential to scale and apply these materials to solve persistent challenges. Biomaterials are inherently adaptable and subject to evolution-selection and via engineered biology, can be endowed with new chemistries, tunable properties, and be armed with the ability to sense and self-repair.

To exploit these material opportunities, we need to better understand their composition, how they are generated and destroyed, and how their properties – strength, elasticity, conductivity, among others – evolve and change over the life of the material or biological component. Interfacing cells and biomolecules to abiotic materials also requires a better understanding of and ability to manipulate surface structures and dynamics, interactions and attachments, and communication pathways.

Current research in engineering biology can directly contribute to the design and production of materials. Biopolymer synthesis, protein engineering, and incorporation of non-native or unnatural nucleotides and amino acids can enable a wider range of biomolecule-based materials.3Torculas, M., Medina, J., Xue, W., & Hu, X. (2016). Protein-based bioelectronics. ACS Biomaterials Science & Engineering, 2(8), 1211-1223. View Publication Engineering circuits, pathways, and cell-free systems can expand the types and structures of materials produced and the environments in which production can occur.4Vermaas, J.V., Dellon, L.D., Broadbelt, L.J., Beckham, G.T., & Crowley, M.F. (2019). Automated transformation of lignin topologies into atomic structures with LigninBuilder. ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering, 7(3), 3443–3453. View Publication The incorporation of cells and biomolecules can expand the functions of existing materials by providing new avenues for signalling and response, material generation and repair, and data processing and storage.5Youdkes, D., Helman, Y., Burdman, S., Matan, O., & Jurkevitch, E. (2020). Potential control of potato soft rot disease by the obligate predators Bdellovibrio and like organisms. Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 86(6), e02543-19. View Publication

The traditional definition of biomaterials focuses on materials for medical applications; however, a broader definition of biomaterials is emerging as materials derived or inspired from biology or materials developed for biological applications. This broader definition reflects the importance of biomaterials beyond traditional medical applications to include such venues as new structural materials (e.g., bioconcrete and biopolymers), new coatings and surface treatments, new fuels and lubricants (biologically sourced and renewed), new sensors and diagnostics, new materials for the food/water/energy nexus, and even new information storage and processing (biocomputers). For example, the new area of active matter has largely been spearheaded by exploring new biopolymer or bio-inspired liquid crystalline systems far-from-equilibrium. This area is at the forefront of both fundamental physics and biology. Another example is the development of new extracellular matrices (ECMs) that have only recently allowed for the inclusion of living cells in what would have been traditionally considered a bulk material.

Challenges for Innovation and Advancement

Despite this potential, we must build on our understanding of the properties of biology when used as or incorporated into materials. We must bring about advancements in the characterization of biomolecules, cells, and biosystems that correlate or align to measurements and traits of abiotic materials like metals and plastics. The dynamic nature of biology contributes directly to out-of-equilibrium behaviors and conditions that require new tools and techniques to quantify and control. Processing and scaling of biology for materials applications is also a significant challenge, particularly as properties of biosystems change as they scale. And as we build and strengthen the bioeconomy, sustainability moves to the forefront, and we must consider how engineered biology can enable materials that are renewable and recyclable, designing and controlling biodegradation.

The challenges of integrating biology with materials science stems from incorporation of the fundamental unit of biology, the cell. Bio-inspiration or bio-mimicry of materials design has a long history and as techniques and capabilities expand, new and ever more exciting developments of novel materials will surely emerge. However, the incorporation of cells into a material matrix blurs the line between materials and devices by adding functionality and programmability to materials. Biocompatibility, transduction of signals, and control of biological systems when interfaced with materials are all crucial elements that are poorly understood, even for natural systems. This is made even more challenging because of the dynamic and active nature of incorporating biomolecules and cells in any application. This results in a highly multi-dimensional and time-dependent data space. There currently does not exist a fundamental understanding of emergent order far-from-equilibrium to guide this exploration. This current state of affairs, where we have developed tools and materials to see the possible intersection of materials and biology but not the pathway to do so, has emphasized the need for development of new theory and computational tools, such as machine learning.

Roadmap to Interdisciplinary Innovation

Through explicit, long-term breakthrough capabilities for scientific and technological achievement, discrete milestones over 20 years, and associated bottleneck challenges and select potential solutions to those bottlenecks, this roadmap aims to describe the potential for innovation and advancements at the intersection of engineering biology and materials science. Further, the roadmap envisions creative and ambitious material solutions to persistent societal challenges that leverage the opportunities and advantages of harnessing and integrating engineered biology. The roadmap provides a high-level path for research and development (and inherently, for funding, investment, and infrastructure) to enable a future of advanced materials.

About the Roadmap

EBRC’s roadmapping is an iterative process of brainstorming, discussion, drafting, review, and revision. Roadmap contributors participate in workshops and collaborative writing sessions, building on the work of their colleagues and bringing new ideas and approaches to each strategy laid out in the roadmap’s milestones and technical achievements. The roadmap incorporates elements of EBRC’s other roadmaps, while accommodating different topics and the nuances and novelties of the intersection of materials science and engineering biology. EBRC’s roadmaps are intended to serve as a resource for the research community, to inspire innovation and build a collective strategy towards advancing science and engineering, and for policymakers, funders, and other stakeholders interested in understanding the opportunities and potential of this research.

Technical advancements to accelerate innovation at the intersection of engineering biology and materials science. Demonstrating the continuity between each of the roadmap’s technical themes and how they build upon one another, we begin with material synthesis of monomers, natural or synthetic, through sequence-defined polymerization of components. Control over the composition and structure enables a higher order structure and overall architecture of the interface that is programmable. With de novo prediction of membrane dynamics, components can be precisely distributed throughout the membrane to direct interactions and containment of cells and biomolecules, or other abiotic components. Processing enables further control and specification of materials through deposition or printing, here onto a biosensing platform. Such programmable patterning is a key feature that enables multiplexed sensing in complex biological environments, demonstrating how further advancements in engineering biology and materials can contribute to novel dynamic activity and performance.


Technical Themes

The roadmap consists of four technical themes that encompass the tools and technologies that are envisioned to enable materials from engineering biology. The technical themes are: Synthesis, Composition & Structure, Processing, and Properties & Performance. The theme structure encourages easy navigation through different topics of the roadmap, clustering similar scientific and engineering ideas. Each technical theme consists of the Roadmap Elements.

Roadmap Elements

The roadmap elements consist of a cascading hierarchy of breakthrough capabilities, milestones, bottlenecks, and potential solutions. Each technical theme has a number of breakthrough capabilities, visionary, 20+ year aspirations which represent the long-term objectives in each thematic space. Milestones at 2, 5, 10, and 20 years (2022, 2025, 2030, and 2040, respectively*) chart the path toward achieving the breakthrough capability and each milestone is elaborated by anticipated or imagined bottlenecks and creative potential solutions. The 2-year and 5-year milestones are intended to signify objectives that can be reached with current or recently implemented funding programs, as well as existing infrastructure and facilities resources. The 10-year and 20-year milestones are expected to be more ambitious achievements that may require (and thus, result in) significant technical advancements and/or increased funding and resources and new and improved infrastructure.

*Though released in January 2021, this roadmap was written almost exclusively during 2020, thus we have chosen to retain these earlier timepoints.

Engineering Biology Breakthrough Capabilities

Included in the roadmap are select breakthrough capabilities from Engineering Biology‘s technical themes. While these breakthrough capabilities were written in the context of advancing the field of engineering biology, the EBRC Materials Roadmapping Working Group leading this roadmapping project felt that the technical achievements elaborated in these breakthrough capabilities and their milestones directly contribute to achieving advancements in materials from engineering biology. This content has been incorporated as reference and, when pertinent, will be provided with context for its inclusion in this roadmap.

Application Sectors

The roadmap consists of five application sectors to illustrate the potential applications at the intersection of materials and engineering biology: 1) Industrial Biotechnology; 2) Health & Medicine; 3) Food & Agriculture; 4) Environmental Biotechnology; and 5) Energy. These application sectors and the associated societal challenges are captured from Engineering Biology and represent a broad consideration of significant economic and social roadblocks towards advancing the way we live and thrive. Within each application sector we highlight a number of exemplar applications of materials from engineering biology that will help us overcome these pervasive societal challenges, such as enabling and establishing a cleaner environment, supporting the health and well-being of growing populations, and accelerating innovation and economic viability of industry. We further identify potential discrete technical achievements necessary to obtain those exemplar applications. These exemplar applications and technical achievements reflect and tie together the advancements envisioned in the roadmap’s technical themes.

The Application Sector content is built from the top-down: considering recognized societal challenges, roadmap contributors consider the myriad options and creative opportunities for materials from engineering biology to contribute to solutions to overcome those challenges, and then the technical advancements that help to enable those solutions.


The convergence of the fields of materials science and engineering biology is a nascent space. As such, researchers in these fields are just beginning to develop intersecting technologies and collaborative concepts. As the tools and technologies combine, there is a need to develop more common language between the fields. To that end, we have developed a glossary for the key terms and concepts in this roadmap. The glossary is specific to the context of this roadmap, but developed with input from the community in both fields.


This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 2016758.

EBRC recommends the following citation when referencing the Roadmap:
Engineering Biology Research Consortium (2021). Engineering Biology & Materials Science: A Research Roadmap for Interdisciplinary Innovation. Retrieved from doi: 10.25498/E4F592.

Project Development

EBRC’s roadmapping is an evergreen activity. Following the release of Engineering Biology in 2019, the EBRC community expressed interest and enthusiasm toward focusing our efforts in 2020 on roadmapping select topics, highlighting two research spaces – microbiomes and materials – where intersection with advancements in synthetic/engineering biology have the potential to transform the tools, applications, and products used and generated over the next 20 years. The selection of the materials topic proved to be incredibly timely, following the convening of the National Science Foundation Division of Materials Research’s three Square-Table workshops. These Square-Table workshops brought together experts in the synthetic biology and materials science fields to discuss trends and innovations and identify challenges and bottlenecks toward novel materials and material properties intertwined with synthetic biology. These workshops generated enthusiasm in the future of materials from synthetic/engineering biology and primed participants to contribute to EBRC’s roadmap.

To develop this roadmap, we engaged over 60 past Square-Table participants, EBRC members, students and postdocs, and other experts from the materials science and engineering biology communities, with the aim of producing a technical roadmap that serves both the synthetic biology and materials science fields. These individuals dedicated significant time and effort toward this roadmap’s production and we are grateful for their efforts.

The entirety of this roadmap was produced during the global SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 pandemic, forcing our community of collaborators to adjust to working remotely, with all the distractions and stresses that our new lives afforded. In a departure from EBRC’s established roadmapping process – which is primarily conducted through intensive, in-person writing workshops – this roadmap is the product of eight virtual, videoconference workshops and many individual working hours, and adaptation of our previous processes of review and revision. However, the resulting roadmap is still anticipated to provide the research community and stakeholders in both materials science and engineering biology fields with an inspirational pathway towards interdisciplinary innovation.

Footnotes & Citations

  1. “Interdisciplinary Laboratories for Basic Research in Materials Sciences,” John Clarke Slater papers, 1908–1976, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, PA.
  2. Meng, F., & Ellis, T. (2020). The second decade of synthetic biology: 2010-2020. Nature Communications, 11, 5174.
  3. Torculas, M., Medina, J., Xue, W., & Hu, X. (2016). Protein-based bioelectronics. ACS Biomaterials Science & Engineering, 2(8), 1211-1223.
  4. Vermaas, J.V., Dellon, L.D., Broadbelt, L.J., Beckham, G.T., & Crowley, M.F. (2019). Automated transformation of lignin topologies into atomic structures with LigninBuilder. ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering, 7(3), 3443–3453.
  5. Youdkes, D., Helman, Y., Burdman, S., Matan, O., & Jurkevitch, E. (2020). Potential control of potato soft rot disease by the obligate predators Bdellovibrio and like organisms. Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 86(6), e02543-19.
Last updated: January 19, 2021