Synthetic biology is an increasingly high-profile area of research that can be understood as encompassing three broad approaches towards the synthesis of living systems: DNA-based device construction, genome-driven cell engineering and protocell creation. Each approach is characterized by different aims, methods and constructs, in addition to a range of positions on intellectual property and regulatory regimes. We identify subtle but important differences between the schools in relation to their treatments of genetic determinism, cellular context and complexity. These distinctions tie into two broader issues that define synthetic biology: the relationships between biology and engineering, and between synthesis and analysis. These themes also illuminate synthetic biology's connections to genetic and other forms of biological engineering, as well as to systems biology. We suggest that all these knowledge-making distinctions in synthetic biology raise fundamental questions about the nature of biological investigation and its relationship to the construction of biological components and systems.