Cellular “tinkering” is critical for establishing a new engineering discipline that will lead to the next generation of technologies based on life’s building blocks.
Engineering began as an outgrowth of the craftwork of metallurgical artisans. In a constant quest to improve their handiwork, those craftsmen exhaustively and empirically explored the properties—alone and in combination—of natural materials. The knowledge accumulated from this exploration and experimentation with natural building blocks eventually led to today’s modern technologies. We can now readily build things like super-lightweight cars and electrical circuits containing billions of transistors that encode highly sophisticated functions, using reliable design and manufacturing frameworks—a vast leap from artisanal craft.
Today, there is a parallel progression unfolding in the field of synthetic biology, which encompasses the engineering of biological systems from genetically encoded molecular components.1-7 The first decade or so of synthetic biology can be viewed as an artisanal exploration of subcellular material. Much as in the early days of other engineering disciplines, the field’s focus has been on identifying the building blocks that may be useful for constructing synthetic biological circuits—and determining the practical rules for connecting them into functional systems. This artisanal tinkering with cells is necessary for arriving at a rigorous understanding of subcellular construction material and for determining the extent to which it can be manipulated.
Unlike other engineering disciplines, synthetic biology can—and should—be guided by the natural blueprints and organizational principles of evolution, the ultimate “tinkerer” at the cellular level.
Unlike other engineering disciplines, however, synthetic biology can—and should—be guided by the natural blueprints and organizational principles of evolution, the ultimate “tinkerer” at the cellular level. As a result, physical intuition, which has played such a central role in developing other engineering fields, may be less helpful in guiding this exploration, and we should always question whether we are using the best construction techniques. By following natural design principles, can we build better systems? Will the field of synthetic biology progress from a modest group of skilled artisans to a thriving industry on par with modern mechanical and electrical engineering? Will it ever fulfill its many promises to reprogram natural organisms and create new organisms for addressing a range of applications in human health, energy, and the environment?