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The Sincerest Form of Flattery?

Over at the American Scientist, Robert Dorit, an associate professor of biology at Smith College argues that synthetic biology "imitates but cannot replicate living organisms." He likens the scenario to Deep Blue, the massive computer built by IBM. Deep Blue, Dorit says, defeating the chess Grand Master Garry Kasparo. Deep Blue, he says, won by mimicking and calculating human intelligence, not by being intelligent itself.

While synthetic biology has seen advances, Dorit notes that they have been won with difficulty.

"My colleagues and I wrestle with the seeming contradiction between the apparent modularity of genetic information and the maddeningly difficult task of designing a new organism from preexisting and well-characterized genetic information," he says. "The explanation, I suspect, lies in one of the fundamental differences between biology and engineering: the importance of history."

By that, he means evolutionary history. Genetic elements have been shaped by their evolution within a genome and that genome within an organism, he says. "This history of coevolution — of genetic elements having evolved together in the same genetic neighborhood — is what synthetic biology will need to incorporate into its approach if it hopes to realize its stated ambitions," Dorit adds.