Synthetic Biology and evolution: friends or foes?

Synthetic biology (SB) is an engineering view on biotechnology. Although there is a lack of consensus on the definition of this emerging discipline, the most accepted one is that SB consists of designing, redesigning and constructing biological modules, systems, and machines in a predictive way, converting them into à la carte sources of products and behaviors. In other words, SB is about making biology easier to engineer and is expected to be as reliable as any other engineering discipline, as opposed to classical biotechnology, assumed to be mainly trial-and-error.

Living organisms and, in particular, bacterial cells, are not machine-like, engineerable entities, but, instead, factory-like complex systems shaped by evolution. The classical metaphor of considering cells as machines could be interpreted as a reductionist view on biological complexity, as it focuses on hardware and on predictability, which are at odds with the emergent properties that characterize the biological realm. Although evolution and emergent properties are considered the enemy to defeat in order for rational design to be predictable, these can also be very useful tools that can contribute to optimizing designs. Therefore, is evolution a desired or undesired trait? Living beings are more than machines that build machines and it has to be stressed that the central pillar of life is not a material one but a process. SB is not about designing organisms, but about taming such a process.

Read more on this topic in the perspective “The Hidden Charm of Life”, written by Manuel Porcar (PI of the BioRoboost project) and recently published in the special issue “Synthetic Biology: From Living Computers to Terraformation”. Reference: Porcar, M. The Hidden Charm of Life. Life 2019, 9, 5.

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