Design Under Randomness: How Variation Affects the Engineering of Biological Systems

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Synthetic biology offers a powerful method to design and construct biological devices for human purposes. Two prominent design methodologies are currently used. Rational design adapts the design methodology of traditional engineering sciences, such as mechanical engineering. Directed evolution, in contrast, models its design principles after natural evolution, as it attempts to design and improve systems by guiding them to evolve in a certain direction. Previous work has argued that the primary difference between these two is the way they treat variation: rational design attempts to suppress it, whilst direct evolution utilizes variation. I argue that this contrast is too simplistic, as it fails to distinguish different types of variation and different phases of design in synthetic biology. I outline three types of variation and show how they influence the construction of synthetic biological systems during the design process. Viewing the two design approaches with these more fine-grained distinctions provides a better understanding of the methodological differences and respective benefits of rational design and directed evolution, and clarifies the constraints and choices that the different design approaches must deal with.
Original languageEnglish
JournalBiological Theory
Issue number3
Pages (from-to)153-163
Number of pages11
Publication statusPublished - 2018
MoE publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed

Fields of Science

  • 611 Philosophy

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