Scientists working on biological design should focus on the idiosyncrasies of biological systems over optimization, according to new research.
In a study, published today in Advances in Scienceresearchers from the Universities of Bristol and Ghent have shown how exploring the unknown can be the critical step needed to deliver the continuous innovation required for the biotechnologies of the future.
Recognizing the role of open-endedness in achieving this goal and its growing importance in fields such as computer science and evolutionary biology, the team mapped how open-endedness relates to bioengineering practice today and what is required to achieve it in the lab.
To be successful, algorithms used for biological design should not only focus on moving toward a specific goal — such as better performance — but also consider generating and maintaining innovation and diversity in the solutions found.
Dr Thomas Gorochowski, co-author and Royal Society University Research Fellow in the School of Biological Sciences in Bristol, explained: “When trying to design a complex biological process, it’s often tempting to modify something that partially works rather than risk trying something completely new.
“In this work we emphasize that in these situations the best solutions often come from unexpected directions because we don’t always understand how everything works. With biology, there are many unknowns and so we need a huge and diverse toolbox of building blocks to ensure that we have the best chance of finding the solution we need.”
Professor Michiel Stock, lead author from Ghent University, added: “Biological systems have a natural capacity for innovation that has led to the overwhelming biodiversity we see in nature today.
“Our own attempts to engineer biology, by contrast, lack this creativity — they are much more rigid, less imaginative, and often do not make the best use of what biology can do.
“With all life around us coming from the open process of evolution, wouldn’t it be awesome if we could harness some of that power for our own biological designs.”
The ability to create new biotechnologies is becoming increasingly important to address global challenges spanning the sustainable production of chemicals, materials and food, to advanced therapies to combat emerging diseases. Fueling this progress are innovations in how biology can be harnessed in new ways. This work supports this goal by offering a new direction for new research and design approaches.
The study was made possible by a travel grant from FWO Flanders and funding from the Royal Society, BBSRC and EPSRC.