A defining characteristic of all life is its ability to evolve. However, the fact that biologically engineered systems will evolve when used has, to date, mostly been ignored. This has resulted in biotechnologies with a limited functional shelf-life that fail to make use of the powerful evolutionary capabilities inherent to all biology.
Sim Castle, first author of the research, published in Nature Communications, and a PhD student in the School of Biological Sciences at Bristol, explained the motivation for the work: “The thing that has always fascinated me about biology is that it changes, it is chaotic, it adapts, it evolves. Bioengineers therefore do not just design static artefacts — they design living populations that continue to mutate, grow and undergo natural selection.”
Realising that describing this change was key to harnessing evolution, the team developed the concept of the evotype to capture the evolutionary potential of a biosystem. Crucially, the evotype can be broken into three key parts: variation, function, and selection, with each of these offering a tuning knob for bioengineers to control the possible paths available to evolution.
Prof Claire Grierson, co-author and Head of the School of Biological Sciences at Bristol, added: “Learning how to effectively engineer with evolution is one of, if not the biggest, challenges facing bioengineers today. Our work provides a desperately needed framework to help describe the evolutionary potential of a biosystem and re-imagine biological engineering so that it works in harmony with life’s ability to evolve.”
Sim Castle further stated: