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An Unlikely Collaboration to Elucidate Life’s Blueprints

Joining together the forces of biology and engineering to improve both fields

What happens when you get sixty biologists and engineers together in a conference for three days? That’s the question asked by Steve Laufman, head of the Engineering Research Group at Discovery. In the recent “Conference on Engineering in Living Systems,” biologists and engineers of every stripe got together to see how the two disciplines could benefit each other.

For biologists, learning how engineers examine, design, and plan projects was eye-opening. Traditionally, biologists focus on individual interactions, not whole-systems approaches. For engineers, discovering the details of cellular architecture and control mechanisms was especially enlightening. 

The conference had a diverse set of presentations, covering numerous areas of overlap between the two fields. One presentation discussed biologically-inspired robots, as well as how they can be used to help spinal cord injury patients. Another presentation focused on the control systems present in biological diversity and evolution. Still others analyzed biomolecular machines from the standpoint of design, comparing top-down requirements specifications and how they match up with bottom-up descriptions of molecular functionality.

Trusted partnership

The pace was grueling, with presentations happening almost continually for thirteen hours each day. However, the results look promising. Many research projects were spawned, many collaborations were initiated, and everyone gained better appreciation for how integrating the approaches of biology and engineering can improve both fields.

All at the conference were agreed that systems biology approaches were the future in molecular biology, replacing the reductionist approaches that had historically dominated the field. In 20th century biology, the focus was on the gene, and when biologists discovered that there were huge stretches of DNA which weren’t technically genes, it was a bit of a puzzle. However, further research shows that in higher organisms, these regions function as giant control systems for turning the right genes on and off at the right time. Combinations of molecular feedback loops, logic gates, and timing functions make sure that the right gene gets transcribed and translated at the right time.

Members of the conference recognized that, rather than just asking what the molecular interactions are, it is better to ask what are the requirements of the system as a whole. If a biological system is conceived of as a whole, you can ask what sensors, control systems, actuators, and feedback is needed to accomplish a task. Then, you can construct a probable plan that the organism would use based on engineering best practices. This provides a framework that can be used to guide experimental studies on the components. 

Historically, engineering approaches have not been favored in biology, because it was presumed that the molecular interactions developed individually through gradual steps over time. However, many are now recognizing that evolution itself occurs through control processes, and so its results can have much more sophisticated integration.

What new discoveries await biology from these approaches? Time will tell, but we are looking to the future with eagerness.

Jonathan Bartlett

Senior Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Jonathan Bartlett is a senior software R&D engineer at Specialized Bicycle Components, where he focuses on solving problems that span multiple software teams. Previously he was a senior developer at ITX, where he developed applications for companies across the US. He also offers his time as the Director of The Blyth Institute, focusing on the interplay between mathematics, philosophy, engineering, and science. Jonathan is the author of several textbooks and edited volumes which have been used by universities as diverse as Princeton and DeVry.

An Unlikely Collaboration to Elucidate Life’s Blueprints