SynBio 2.0, a new era for synthetic life: Neglected essential functions for resilience

Environmental Microbiology 25 (1):64-78 (2022)
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Synthetic biology (SynBio) covers two main areas: application engineering, exemplified by metabolic engi- neering, and the design of life from artificial building blocks. As the general public is often reluctant to embrace synthetic approaches, preferring nature to artifice, its immediate future will depend very much on the public’s reaction to the unmet needs created by the pervasive demands of sustainability. On the other hand, this reluctance should not have a negative impact on research that will now take into account the existence of the multiple transitions that cells face over time. The ages of life—birth, development, maturation, senescence and death—reflect specific key transitions and have, until now, rarely been taken into account in SynBio designs. This results in a mismatch between novelty and the very long evolutionary time that led to the existing chassis [remember that this is the common term used to describe the cellular framework as seen by synthetic biologists (de Lorenzo & Danchin, 2008)]. It also implies that, in general, transitions between growth stages will be taken into account with the appro- priate embodiment of highly specific processes. This is particularly important when adapting new models to their host, whether natural or artificial. Adaptation fol- lows two stages, short-term accommodation of new entities and long-term assimilation into the cell as a whole. This requires discrimination between classes of entities. We suggest that proteins playing the essential role of Maxwell’ demons, here named Maxwell’s dis- criminators (MxDs) to refer to their original function, will permit the assimilation and accommodation of artificial constructs. As a consequence, we can foresee that class discrimination, beyond mere recognition, will be implemented in SynBio 2.0, leading to an authentic par- adigm shift (Kuhn, 1996), based on conceptions that embody information as a genuine currency of reality.

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Antoine Danchin
University of Hong Kong


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