© The Royal Society of Chemistry 2016. The main tenet of physical biology is that biological phenomena can be subject to the same quantitative and predictive understanding that physics has afforded in the context of inanimate matter. However, the inherent complexity of many of these biological processes often leads to the derivation of complex theoretical descriptions containing a plethora of unknown parameters. Such complex descriptions pose a conceptual challenge to the establishment of a solid basis for predictive biology. In this article, we present various exciting examples of how synthetic biology can be used to simplify biological systems and distill these phenomena down to their essential features as a means to enable their theoretical description. Here, synthetic biology goes beyond previous efforts to engineer nature and becomes a tool to bend nature to understand it. We discuss various recent and classic experiments featuring applications of this synthetic approach to the elucidation of problems ranging from bacteriophage infection, to transcriptional regulation in bacteria and in developing embryos, to evolution. In all of these examples, synthetic biology provides the opportunity to turn cells into the equivalent of a test tube, where biological phenomena can be reconstituted and our theoretical understanding put to test with the same ease that these same phenomena can be studied in the in vitro setting.