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Towards Engineering Biological Systems in a Broader Context

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Significant advances have been made in synthetic biology to program information processing capabilities in cells. While these designs can function predictably in controlled laboratory environments, the reliability of these devices in complex, temporally changing environments has not yet been characterized. As human society faces global challenges in agriculture, human health and energy, synthetic biology should develop predictive design principles for biological systems operating in complex environments. Natural biological systems have evolved mechanisms to overcome innumerable and diverse environmental challenges. Evolutionary design rules should be extracted and adapted to engineer stable and predictable ecological function. We highlight examples of natural biological responses spanning the cellular, population and microbial community levels that show promise in synthetic biology contexts. We argue that synthetic circuits embedded in host organisms or designed ecologies informed by suitable measurement of biotic and abiotic environmental parameters could be used as engineering substrates to achieve target functions in complex environments. Successful implementation of these methods will broaden the context in which synthetic biological systems can be applied to solve important problems.

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