Science is not an isolated enterprise: it is affected by and affects broader society and culture. Synthetic biology has changed aspects of education; stimulated artists, writers, and film-makers; and caught the interest of philosophers, ethicists, campaigners, and legislators. ‘Cultural impact’ gives a taste of the wider political, artistic, and cultural implications of synthetic biology. It also considers the fears and hopes that arise from these new technologies. Most speculation about synthetic biology takes an optimistic view of the good that may come from an ability to engineer living things. In the near future, there is much that can be done for the fields of energy, environment, medicine, and engineering.