Courtesy of syntheticbiology.org

Design + Biology

Examples like Dr. J. Craig Venter’s minimal cell and Dr. Jay Keasling’s synthetic biology derived anti-malarial, artemisinin, all work towards a central goal: standardization and integration of design principles in biology. This has had two major implications on the direction that biological research today is taking. First, it has now become more important than ever to approach biology with a diverse and interdisciplinary toolbox, and second, the fusion of design in biology has necessitated rethinking of design principles to make sense with this novel biological medium.

Design is a methodology and a practice that utilizes many different materials, techniques, expertise, and values in order to accomplish a goal and fulfill a set of requirements. In contrast, traditional biology has been largely limited to focused biologists, working on studying specific intricacies in defined biological systems. The evolution of biology from an observational to a technological science has mandated an influx of scientists and engineers from varying disciplines to define the new frontiers of biology. From whole cell mathematical models, to rethinking DNA as biological circuitry and applying control theory to these circuits, we have, in a relatively short time, started to think about biology in ways that we may have previously thought impossible.

This direct imposition of design principles into biology may have come with a price; nearly a decade after synthetic biology was first defined, we have realized that trying to cram all the intricacies of biological systems into standardized parts and objects may not always work. Rethinking biology as an engineering science may require a rethinking of engineering design principles as well: a set of principles that represent a movement towards optimization and perfection. Biology, on the other hand, may not always be responsive to such ideals.

In fact, it may not be the teachings of design that mandate such a regularization of an irregular system. Design, on the other hand, is an intellectual process that yearns to understand the environment it is presented with and discover solutions to a problem in not only a human-, but also a system-centric way. Therefore, design principles could perhaps be better utilized to lead biological research in a direction that works with the chaotic nature of biology as opposed to against it.

Synthesizing Science and Design

The combination of these two fields can create platforms of discussion and investigation for scientists and designers alike. Design is a highly interdisciplinary field that necessitates the use and understanding of multiple technologies and thought processes in order to solve problems. Such an interdisciplinary approach to tackle biological questions can help scientists view their research through different perspectives.

Integration of design in biology has often been parallelized with the engineering design strategy that has been used and vulgarized in the computing industry. Modularization and standardization of parts, biological circuitry, comparison of the genetic code to binary and more all showcase how we are trying to industrialize biology in the same way that we industrialized information technology and electronics. However, this engineering design take on biology instinctively tries to diminish the seeming chaos and millions of years worth of evolved complexity present in biology in nature.

Harry Campbell Illustration

The reason for this is that we don’t fully understand, yet, the basic fundamentals of biology. We have established details on the central dogma; however, we can’t treat cells simply as empty factories for reactions. In order to design and exploit biological systems, we need to first appreciate the chaos. We have to understand that each system is slightly different, and that, in fact, there is a non-modularity that exists in the current state of biology. The biologist’s first job, therefore, ought to be to understand the system that he or she is working with at each level of abstraction from culture tubes to individual cells to individual enzymes, and perhaps even the molecules, and the electrons and protons that define each cellular molecule. We use design thinking, in this way, to ask questions about our systems, for example, questions about regulation in metabolic pathways, or directions and methods to drive evolution in a way that we can capitalize on, or creating more details and visualization on biological systems. In doing so, we can begin to better accomplish our human-centric goals in the form of creative applications that don’t ignore the inherent intricacies of biology, but rather use and benefit from them.

In Adrien Mackenzie’s essay, he discusses how “many existing definitions and characterizations of synthetic biology take at face value the claim that design can be done and is done according to principles. The fact that design is also an aggregate of practices, spanning a highly variable set of techniques, processes, materials, abstractions and sensations, and often standing on shifting economic and organizational ground is barely recognized.” In this thinking, a biologist that utilizes design principles should want to define systems that work with the biological environment as opposed to on top of an environment.