Synthetic Evolution

Earlier I mentioned a paper by Lynn J. Rothschild entitled A powerful toolkit for synthetic biology: Over 3.8 billion years of evolution that recently appeared in the journal BioEssays.  Rothschild’s paper mostly categorizes and explores “evolution’s toolkit as a way to point to potential approaches for synthetic biology.”  As such, the majority of the paper describes mechanisms of evolutionary change as potential methods that might be coopted by synthetic engineers.

The combination of evolutionary with engineering principles will enhance synthetic biology. Conversely, synthetic biology has the potential to enrich evolutionary biology by explaining why some adaptive space is empty, on Earth or elsewhere. Synthetic biology, the design and construction of artificial biological systems, substitutes bio-engineering for evolution, which is seen as an obstacle. But because evolution has produced the complexity and diversity of life, it provides a proven toolkit of genetic materials and principles available to synthetic biology.

Yet I am struck by various themes, briefly raised, that seamlessly tie into the possibility that evolution itself has been engineered in some manner.

First, she writes:

Even if created synthetically, (5–8) from that moment onwards each organism will undergo a unique history which may effect its phenotype and genotype.


even synthetically created biological systems will, once created, operate under the rules of evolution.

This seems painfully obvious to me, but it’s a point that gets very little attention.  Evolution would follow design.

Among most in the ID crowd, the entire focus seems to be invested in demonstrating the inadequacy of evolution so a gap is created large enough to place an intelligent designer.  Thus, many on the ID side come to this issue sharing the same assumption (blind spot?) as their non-teleological critics – evolution itself is not a product of design.  .

But I say that the really interesting material does not come from trying to demonstrate evolution cannot occur but comes from focusing on how evolution may have been influenced by design. If evolution is inevitably going to follow the creation of some synthetic life form, a clever designer would likely factor this into the creation of that synthetic life form.  So therein would lie your “evidence for design.”

Second, as already mentioned, Rothschild recognizes that preadpatations would be helpful for evolutionary change given the tinkering ways of the blind watchmaker.  That’s a core theme in my thesis and I have likened preadaptations to the blind watchmaker’s seeing eye dog (or was that seeing eye rabbit?).

Third, Rothschild also notes:

While some of these tools of evolution are currently in use in synthetic biology, all ought to be examined for utility. A hybrid approach of synthetic biology coupled with fine-tuning through evolution is suggested.

A hybrid approach of synthetic biology coupled with fine-tuning through evolution is suggested translates as design, followed by tinkering.   Perhaps the ultimate expression of this proposed engineering approach is evolution itself.  Maybe one day the hypotheses of front-loading and/or nudging evolution might develop into The Theory of Synthetic Evolution. LOL.

Finally, Rothschild has a short section entitled, “What evolution can do for synthetic biology.”

She writes:

But the success of evolution relied on other principles that should be embraced by synthetic biology. Evolution operates on a population of individuals that vary in some heritable fashion and are historical entities. So why not create variation around an engineered solution and let evolution lead the engineer to the optimal solution? For example, why not engineer a template for a part, and let evolution search for a better solution by exploring fitness space? Or use the template as starting point for duplication and diversification? Perhaps this could include genetic exchange among individuals. The design of microbial consortia should be a powerful approach. Thus, instead of fearing evolution, synthetic biologists will do well to learn and adopt where fruitful.

There is a lot of overlap between this and what I have been proposing here – a planet is seeded with a consortium of bioengineered cells tied together by universal themes that facilitate genetic exchange among individuals, yet housing significant variation as a population.  The architecture and composition (the “choice architecture”) of these cells is the starting point for duplication and diversification.  In other words, I’m thinking of Rothschild’s “tempate” as the consortium of cells themselves.  These are ideas are explored in previous blog entries.  I cannot say this view is true or even the “best explanation.”  But I do say it is a plausible, reasonable, and tantalizing hypothesis.  That it overlaps with Rothschild’s description is encouraging.

While Rothschild (and George Church) may have unknowingly brushed up against the hypothesis of front-loading evolution, no one (AFAIK) has yet to recognize that the starting point – the synthetic life form(s) – represents a choice architecture that will bias evolution given that evolution is a tinkerer.


4 responses to “Synthetic Evolution

  1. Amazingly similar ideas. Is it possible Rothschild got hers from a certain rabbit?

  2. Nah. Keep in mind I picked out the sections that are similar to show that a certain detective rabbit is not THAT far out on a limb. For example, she also writes, “Certainly the complexity of biology provides a colossal engineering challenge. Organisms operate not as an engineered system, but as a metabolic ecosystem with extremely complex feedback loops.”

  3. “Organisms operate not as an engineered system, but as a metabolic ecosystem with extremely complex feedback loops.”


    Kind of a false dichotomy, no?

  4. Yep.

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