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Developments in biology

The previous example clearly shows how the amazement of a lot of scientists led to an abstract theory, ultimately resulting in ingenious applications. We will now turn to what concerns us here, synthetic biology. It is our goal to prove to the reader that synthetic biology is in fact a logical step in the development of biological sciences. This attempt has, however, nothing to do with ethical discussions or concerns about biosafety and -regulations. It merely demonstrates that synthetic biology is not an unusual development of science just because it touches the very nature of life.


Amazement about biology is certainly not new. Man has always wondered about nature. The organization of the ant’s social life, the accuracy by which monkeys swing in trees and bats navigate in the darkness of the night. Plato’s theory of Forms (What makes a bird a bird, is the Form, the Idea, unreachable to man and therefore by definition immaterial) must have been influenced by that amazement in nature. While stating that the perfect bird is a Form, Plato maybe already suspected the existence of something that would be discovered twenty-two centuries later: DNA, the molecule of life.


One of the key elements in abstraction is the use of the language of mathematics. It was the Austrian priest Gregor Mendel who first started searching for, and also found, mathematical patterns in one of the key concepts of nature: inheritance. At the same time, another scientist, the British biologist Charles Darwin was writing ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES. The combined abstractions of these two men opened the way for modern biology. It was only halfway the twentieth century, on April 25, 1953 with the publication of the Nature article MOLECULAR STRUCTURE OF NUCLEIC ACIDS: A STRUCTURE FOR DEOXYRIBOSE NUCLEIC ACID that James Watson and Francis Crick had finally finalized the fundamentals of biology. Shortly after that moment, seen by most scientists as the birth of modern biology, the major attention in biology moved from abstraction to the application phase.


Since the discovery of the structure of genetic material, more and more tools have been developed to adapt nature all the more versatile. Restriction enzymes, DNA sequencing, molecular cloning techniques, PCR, DNA synthesis, the list seems endless. It is therefore not surprising that, as techniques are still developing, the applications in natural sciences also keep on looking forward. Biological sciences are for the moment (almost literally) in an exponentional growthphase and get more and more attention from the scientific and public communities. The evolution towards an in-depth application of biology, the engineer’s view on life is in this concept--we will define this later on as synthetic biology-- , no more than a logic step.