Is any one conceptual framework is sufficient for advancing the field of Synthetic Biology? Will a new paradigm be needed eventually? We can apply a diverse set of paradigms to think about how biology works: Analog devices (clocks, gears, etc) or digital circuits (processor), biochemical pathways where the flow of substrates can resemble the flow of fluids through a complex network of pipes, or even complex mathematical constructs (like those developed by Wolfram) can all be used to represent or draw parallels with different aspects of molecular biology.
Synthetic Biology is sometimes described as molecular biology with an engineering perspective. Indeed, many leading researchers in the field have backgrounds in electrical engineering or some related discipline. Much of the earlier work done by pioneering synthetic biologists has been to formulate biological phenomenon in more familiar engineering terms. These efforts has enabled engineers to leverage their expertise during the design of complex artificial genetic networks and cell behaviors. Are the promises of synthetic biology within our grasp, limited only by a need for the import of more engineering knowledge?
Despite the success of an engineering paradigm in synthetic biology, I believe that harnessing the full potential of this field will require new concepts and perspective. Synthetic Biology can and should grow from conceptual frameworks borrowed from engineering disciplines, but also must not be constrained by them.
Incorporating ideas and concepts from fields other than the digital logic of electrical engineering can only serve to strengthen the efforts of a synthetic biologist. In this series of articles, I will detail how perspectives from Molecular Biologists, as well as Economists and other Engineers (particularly those that deal with Analog systems) may prove to be an invaluable part of the synthetic biologist's conceptual toolkit. The remainder of this article (which you can view by selecting 'Read More') details a recent advance in synthetic biology: the design of an analog genetic circuit by the Sarpeshkar Laboratory Group. I also discuss how Synthetic Biology can mimic and learn from nature, and why keeping an open mind and a flexible vocabulary may be important.