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Synthetic biologists seek to understand, design and extend biology, and biological tools, from their simplest component parts and processes. Such a reductionist approach has been a paradigm shift in molecular biology and has fostered the rapid growth of the Synthetic Biology field and its subdivisions: Biodesign engineering, xenobiology, synthetic genomics among others. Another consequence of the reduction of biology to parts, and central to the premise of engineering biology, is the concept of biology as a tool – a complex tool that defies understanding but with clear limitations and specialisms that have been key to its success. This Gordon Research Conference on Synthetic Biology, and accompanying Gordon Research Seminar, will provide a multidisciplinary forum to discuss biology as an optimization engine, the latest analysis and design tools for the assembly of viable biological systems at all levels and, the application of biology. In the spirit of Gordon Research Conferences, we will deliver an informal setting where scientists at all stages – graduates, post-doctoral fellows, established researchers and industrialists – will have the opportunity to engage as a community, foster new collaborations and, discuss some of the key issues driving and hindering the field.