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An Evolutionary Approach to Synthetic Biology: Zen and the Art of Creating Life

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Our concepts of biology, evolution, and complexity are constrained by having observed only a single instance of life, life on earth. A truly comparative biology is needed to extend these concepts. Because we cannot observe life on other planets, we are left with the alternative of creating Artificial Life forms on earth. I will discuss the approach of inoculating evolution by natural selection into the medium of the digital computer. This is not a physical/chemical medium; it is a logical/informational medium. Thus, these new instances of evolution are not subject to the same physical laws as organic evolution (e.g., the laws of thermodynamics) and exist in what amounts to another universe, governed by the “physical laws” of the logic of the computer. This exercise gives us a broader perspective on what evolution is and what it does. An evolutionary approach to synthetic biology consists of inoculating the process of evolution by natural selection into an artificial medium. Evolution is then allowed to find the natural forms of living organisms in the artificial medium. These are not models of life, but independent instances of life. This essay is intended to communicate a way of thinking about synthetic biology that leads to a particular approach: to understand and respect the natural form of the artificial medium, to facilitate the process of evolution in generating forms that are adapted to the medium, and to let evolution find forms and processes that naturally exploit the possibilities inherent in the medium. Examples are cited of synthetic biology embedded in the computational medium, where in addition to being an exercise in experimental comparative evolutionary biology, it is also a possible means of harnessing the evolutionary process for the production of complex computer software.