Recent progress in DNA manipulation and gene circuit engineering has greatly improved our ability to programme and probe mammalian cell behaviour. These advances have led to a new generation of synthetic biology research tools and potential therapeutic applications. Programmable DNA-binding domains and RNA regulators are leading to unprecedented control of gene expression and elucidation of gene function. Rebuilding complex biological circuits such as T cell receptor signalling in isolation from their natural context has deepened our understanding of network motifs and signalling pathways. Synthetic biology is also leading to innovative therapeutic interventions based on cell-based therapies, protein drugs, vaccines and gene therapies.