warehouse warehouse

“Cut, copy, paste.”

by Gabriele Gramelsberger,  translated by Pierre Schwarzer

The next “new normal” or biology’s trend towards homophily


  1. Thornhill, N. W.: The Natural History of Inbreeding and Outbreeding – Theoretical and Empirical Perspectives. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (1993)

  2. Tomita, M.: Towards Computer-aided Design (CAD) of useful microorganisms. In: Bioinformatics 17 (2001) 1091-1092

  3. Chandran, D. et al.: Computer-aided design for synthetic biology. In: H. Koeppl et al. (Hrsg.): Design and analysis of biomolecular circuits: Engineering approaches to systems and synthetic biology. New York: Springer (2011) 203-224

  4. Peplow, M.: Synthetic biology’s first malaria drug meets market resistance. Commercial use of genetically engineered yeast to make medicine has modest impact. In: Nature 530/7591 (2016) 389-390

  5. Umenhoffer K, et al.: Reduced evolvability of Escherichia coli MDS42, an IS-less cellular chassis for molecular and synthetic biology applications. In: Microbial Cell Factories 9 (2010) Article 38

DNA Sequencings [wikimedia commons]

Variety is the key engine of evolution. If the genetic diversity in a population sinks – a phenomenon biologists’ call inbred depression – it has consequences for the disease susceptibility of the affected species 1. This phenomenon of the normalization of the genetic code occurs primarily in isolated populations, but also through the continuous crossbreeding of individuals of the same lineage. The completely normalized end of this spectrum is formed by clones of identical genetic codes that are now found in masses in the greenhouses of the agricultural industry or have become possible through reproductive medicine. Dolly (July 5, 1996 to February 14, 2003), the first cloned mammal, is emblematic of this path to homophile hopelessness; towards the “genetic bubble.” But there is yet another, more recent way of normalizing the genetic code [read on].

With TinerCell biobricks can be designed and assembled into biomolecular machines.

“Cut, copy, paste!” Is the motto of Synthetic Biology, a research field that has been established since the early 2000s. This involves the industrial use of microorganisms such as E. coli bacteria or yeast cells for the production of biomaterials – drugs, biofuels and other organic products, including well-known products such as beer or cheese. For “utilizing microorganisms in industrial processes is one of the most important achievements of the 21st century” 2. For some time now, this business has been operated with computer-aided design programs (CAD), not only to optimize microorganisms for industrial production, but to generate completely redesigned, biomolecular factories. With biological CAD programs such as TinkerCell (tinkercell.com), biobricks can be designed and assembled into biomolecular machines 3.

Biobricks are standardized building blocks from DNA that code certain functions. For example, there are so-called promoters that initialize the transcription of DNA into mRNA. Terminators, on the other hand, stop DNA transcription. mRNA, in turn, is translated into proteins. Biomolecular machines such as protein generators can be produced with these and other classes of biobricks. “Typically a protein generator contains a promoter, a ribosome binding site (RBS), the protein coding region and one or more transcription terminators” (http://parts.igem.org/Help:Protein_generators). This engineering-design of biomolecular machines is now greatly facilitated by CAD programs allowing to visualize biobricks on the screen and compose them into biomolecular machines. Each design is based on a genetic sequence, which can be synthesized without any problem using “DNA printers” and can be duplicated as often as required. Bluntly put: biology is transformed into a computer-assisted science that converts digital CAD files (dCode) into material DNA templates (gCode) at the touch of a button. The material DNA templates can then be introduced into the laboratory into genetically reduced carrier cells or carrier organisms – so-called chassis – for replicating and producing biomaterials.

Admittedly, this does not usually work in laboratory days, because life – also biomolecular – is individual, complex and resistant. But first “proofs-of-concepts” already exist; as well as socio-political resistance 4. Not only biologists but leading IT companies are researching this new alliance of dCode / gCode. However, the industrial use of biomolecular machines in chassis – in the plain text: extremely genetically modified microorganisms – is not about a DNA template in a carrier cell, but about billions of them. And they should be as identical as possible and always produce the same. What is completely unwanted is living behaviour such as adaptation or mutation and thus evolution. Thus, one attempts to eliminate mutations to turn biomolecular machines into isolated miniature bio-factories 5. Turning something living into a “thing” means taking its developmental scope entirely. Only what is equal with itself and with others is identical and has identity as thing. This is what the trend of biology to homophily refers to.

Gabriele Gramelsberger holds the Chair for Philosophy of Digital Media at the University of Witten / Herdecke. Her philosophical research focuses on the influence of the computer on science and society. Until 2016 she was a Fellow at the DFG Forscherkolleg Medienkulturen der Computerimulation MECS at the Leuphana University Lüneburg as well as at the IKKM International College for Cultural Technology Research and Media Philosophy Bauhaus Universität Weimar.