February 7, 2020, by Brigitte Nerlich

Engineering biology? Sure! But which kind?

This is a guest post by Massimiliano Simons who is a postdoctoral researcher at the department of philosophy and moral sciences at Ghent University, Belgium.


Biology is a mess, not only the natural processes out there but also the science in the lab. Every biological rule seems to have exceptions and all biological laboratories follow their own protocols and rules. How to make sense of this? For Drew Endy, the solution was simple: install order by imposing engineering onto biology. In what has become a foundational article for the field of synthetic biology, Drew Endy proclaimed that “the engineering of biology remains complex because we have never made it simple”. Engineering will clean up the mess biology has made.

But what is engineering? Many scientists, and especially engineers, are keen to avoid such a question. Why bother about semantics? Why not focus on the things that need to be done? But words matter, especially if they conceal different and conflicting ideas of what needs to be done. The label of engineering is a perfect example of this.

Whereas synthetic biology is often presented as the application of engineering to biology, what is meant by engineering often remains opaque. In a recent article, I explore how behind such a simple word as ‘engineering’ a diversity of programs and ambitions reside, and how many internal struggles are taking place over what synthetic biology should be like, depending on the kind of engineering one has in mind.

From universal method to local knowhow

For instance, a popular candidate for defining engineering is that it is ‘applied science’. Scientists come up with a theory; engineers apply these insights to concrete cases. Within synthetic biology this idea is at work in the subfield of cell-free synthetic biology, which aims to use the machinery of biological cells without the use of living cells. Instead biologists use artificial setups and containers to speed up the process and avoid all kinds of intracellular entanglements. The hope is to use this for the mass production of useful chemicals. The story behind this subfield is often one of application: what the basic science of molecular biology has taught us, synthetic biology is now going to apply to industry.

But this is not the only engineering story in synthetic biology. For Endy, engineering is a rational methodology that has shown its merits in other fields and should now be applied to biology. Following this methodology, biological systems should be subdivided into standardized parts, so that they can be decoupled and rearranged on separate levels that do not interfere with one another. Whereas before a cell was nothing but a giant web of complexities, through this methodology it can be separated out into a neat set of small and solvable problems.

Critics, however, are doubtful as to whether Endy’s project is realistic. When they look at what synthetic biologists actually do, this rational methodology Endy speaks of is nowhere to be found; instead, a form of tinkering or kludge is at work. We see a chaotic and ad hoc approach, where synthetic biologists try to solve immediate problems with solutions not based on abstract principles, but on practical and local knowhow. But one only has to briefly talk to engineers to realize that this does not mean synthetic biology is not engineering. In contrast with a rational methodology, some would rather define engineering as such a context-sensitive activity, based on practical knowledge.

The Trickster-Engineer

So far, we have already met three different concepts of engineering: applied science, rational methodology and context-sensitive activity. But, even when we restrict ourselves to synthetic biology, the diversity of engineering concepts does not limit itself to these three. For instance, even those who start from a context-sensitive conception of engineering, often stress that something more is at play. Good engineers are not just practically minded, but also tricksters: they devise ways by which the machinery of the cells themselves do all the hard work of cutting, synthesizing and activating the relevant DNA parts.

Historically, the profession of engineering has indeed a link with this cunning reason, a specific mind set or ingenuity, often accompanied by ambiguous moral connotations. Is it not problematic to let nature do things that, although not breaking the laws of nature, bend them for purposes never originally intended? And are engineers really discovering significant phenomena or is their work nothing more than a collection of tricks? The latter question was, for instance, raised when the synthetic biologist Craig J. Venter claimed that he synthesized the first artificial cell. For some this was the proof of extraordinary ingenuity, whereas for others it was nothing but a cheap trick devised to impress but lacking real scientific merit.

Historians such as Hélène Vérin have traced this trickster element of engineering back to the early Middle Ages, when engineers were mainly working on war machines like catapults. But has there been no substantial changes in engineering since then? Of course there have. This brings us to our final concept of engineering, that of design. Engineering has had large numbers of shifts in history. If we only stick to its 20th century history, we see two important shifts.

From engineering science to design

Firstly, around the Second World War, a ‘rise of engineering sciences’ occurred. Whereas engineering, especially in the Anglo-American world, remained a very practical vocation until then, a substantial increase in abstract theory and science was introduced into the curricula. New technological projects such as the Manhattan Project and the Apollo Program required more complex technologies. Engineering curricula that were more science-informed gained an advantage, resulting in a general shift away from practice towards theory.

In the 1980s this resulted in a backlash from the engineers, who started to worry that there was too much focus on theory at the expense of practice. Engineering is not just theory, it is more. Most famously, the engineer Eugene S. Ferguson claimed:

“The art of engineering has been pushed aside in favour of the analytical ‘engineering sciences,’ which are higher in status and easier to teach. [… A]n engineering education that ignores its rich heritage of nonverbal learning will produce graduates who are dangerously ignorant of the myriad subtle ways in which the real world differs from the mathematical world their professors teach them.” (Ferguson, 1992: xii)

Attempts to reintroduce this lost, practical aspect of engineering was embodied in one concept: design. As a result, ‘design courses’ were massively reintroduced into curricula and the specificity of engineering was increasingly defined through design as a distinct methodology, often described as ‘synthetic’ in contrast to the ‘analytic’ method of science.

But engineers never agreed whether such a design methodology could genuinely be formalized, as someone like Herbert Simon believed, or could only be taught in a practical or case-by-case way, as engineers such as Donald Schön or Henry Petroski claimed.

This struggle continues in synthetic biology. Whereas Drew Endy firmly believes that the engineering aspect can be formalized, as an abstract methodology that will prove of use for biology, others are more skeptical. The synthetic biologist George Church, for instance, has a different conception of engineering, and even design, which does not start from a rational blueprint, but aims to trick the machinery of cells to do the work for him. Through a technique called directed evolution Church lets biological cells solve the engineering problems for the biologists: you create the artificial setting in which natural selection will select organisms with the properties the scientists desire. Some have raised doubt whether this is still engineering, since the engineer loses control. But from this brief history of design we can see that similar questions over the nature of engineering, and whether it can be formalized, have accompanied the field for decennia.

How engineering must be understood is thus highly contested. Whether it is applied science, a rational methodology, a context-sensitive practice, a cunning reason, design or something else is not carved in stone. This also applies to synthetic biology, where famous pioneers such as Drew Endy, Craig J. Venter or George Church each have their own idea of engineering in mind, and so do their critics.

These hidden histories of the multiple conceptions of engineering thus remain to be explored. In my article I aim to make a first step in that direction, examining how synthetic biologists, social scientists and policy makers mobilize different accounts of engineering for different purposes.


Ferguson, E. (1992). Engineering and the Mind’s Eye. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Image: Unsplash

Posted in engineeringsynthetic biology