Real-world synthetic biology: is it founded on an engineering approach, and should it be?

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Authors often assert that a key feature of 21st-century synthetic biology is its use of an ‘engineering approach’; design using predictive models, modular architecture, construction using well-characterized standard parts, and rigorous testing using standard metrics. This article examines whether this is, or even should be, the case. A brief survey of synthetic biology projects that have reached, or are near to, commercial application outside laboratories shows that they showed very few of these attributes. Instead, they featured much trial and error, and the use of specialized, custom components and assays. What is more, consideration of the special features of living systems suggest that a conventional engineering approach will often not be helpful. The article concludes that the engineering approach may be useful in some projects, but it should not be used to define or constrain synthetic biological endeavour, and that in fact the conventional engineering has more to gain by expanding and embracing more biological ways of working.
Original languageEnglish
Article number6
JournalLife Sciences
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 7 Jan 2019


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