BACKGROUNDSynthetic biology brings together concepts and techniques from engineering and biology. In this field, computer-aided design (CAD) is necessary in order to bridge the gap between computational modeling and biological data. Using a CAD application, it would be possible to construct models using available biological "parts" and directly generate the DNA sequence that represents the model, thus increasing the efficiency of design and construction of synthetic networks.RESULTSAn application named TinkerCell has been developed in order to serve as a CAD tool for synthetic biology. TinkerCell is a visual modeling tool that supports a hierarchy of biological parts. Each part in this hierarchy consists of a set of attributes that define the part, such as sequence or rate constants. Models that are constructed using these parts can be analyzed using various third-party C and Python programs that are hosted by TinkerCell via an extensive C and Python application programming interface (API). TinkerCell supports the notion of a module, which are networks with interfaces. Such modules can be connected to each other, forming larger modular networks. TinkerCell is a free and open-source project under the Berkeley Software Distribution license. Downloads, documentation, and tutorials are available at http://www.tinkercell.com.CONCLUSIONAn ideal CAD application for engineering biological systems would provide features such as: building and simulating networks, analyzing robustness of networks, and searching databases for components that meet the design criteria. At the current state of synthetic biology, there are no established methods for measuring robustness or identifying components that fit a design. The same is true for databases of biological parts. TinkerCell's flexible modeling framework allows it to cope with changes in the field. Such changes may involve the way parts are characterized or the way synthetic networks are modeled and analyzed computationally. TinkerCell can readily accept third-party algorithms, allowing it to serve as a platform for testing different methods relevant to synthetic biology.