Engineering biology in the light of evolution

Research

The Sculpting Evolution Group seeks to develop new ways of engineering genomes, organisms, and ecosystems by working with evolution. These technologies will allow us to build, establish, and maintain useful traits in complex living systems.

Why focus on evolution? The first challenge is to make the system do something useful. Evolved biological systems tend to have many more interactions between their components than equally complex technologies designed by humans. These intricate networks of dependencies make it hard to predict their behavior and even harder to rationally design them to do something else. We don't need to understand the interactions if we can direct evolution to discover and select for the new trait.

Once we have a working trait, we need to keep it stable. Altered traits typically reduce the organism's ability to survive and reproduce, so any mutations that break the new trait will outcompete the working version if given enough generations. Tying the new trait to a fitness benefit or continually overwriting with the working version can prevent this.

Finally, wild organisms and traits almost always outcompete human-altered versions, especially in natural environments. This generally keeps us from altering populations in nature, unless we can engineer a powerful fitness benefit. But not all selection takes place at the level of the organism. Harnessing gene drive elements that distort inheritance in their favor enables us to spread even deleterious traits through wild populations.

By understanding why systems evolve in the ways that they do, we are learning to sculpt the evolutionary process and reliably engineer living systems.

Most of our projects and collaborations fall into one or more of three main categories:

Ecology

    Controlling evolutionary fitness in complex environments, stabilizing systems, and engineering populations.




Evolution

    Applying evolutionary engineering to accelerate the discovery and optimization of biotechnologies too complex for design.


Engineering

    Developing novel methods of precisely editing genomes and regulating natural and synthetic biological systems.