Design Methodologies and the Limits of the Engineering-Dominated Conception of Synthetic Biology

Acta Biotheoretica 67 (1):1-18 (2018)
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Abstract

Synthetic biology is described as a new field of biotechnology that models itself on engineering sciences. However, this view of synthetic biology as an engineering field has received criticism, and both biologists and philosophers have argued for a more nuanced and heterogeneous understanding of the field. This paper elaborates the heterogeneity of synthetic biology by clarifying the role of design and the variability of design methodologies in synthetic biology. I focus on two prominent design methodologies: rational design and directed evolution. Rational design resembles the design methodology of traditional engineering sciences. However, it is often replaced and complemented by the more biologically-inspired method of directed evolution, which models itself on natural evolution. These two approaches take philosophically different stances to the design of biological systems. Rational design aims to make biological systems more machine-like, whereas directed evolution utilizes variation and emergent features of living systems. I provide an analysis of the methodological basis of these design approaches, and highlight important methodological differences between them. By analyzing the respective benefits and limitations of these approaches, I argue against the engineering-dominated conception of synthetic biology and its “methodological monism”, where the rational design approach is taken as the default design methodology. Alternative design methodologies, like directed evolution, should be considered as complementary, not competitive, to rational design.

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Tero Ijäs
University of Helsinki

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