Can a biologist fix a smartphone?—Just hack it!

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Biological systems integrate multiscale processes and networks and are, therefore, viewed as difficult to dissect. However, because of the clear-cut separation between the software code (the information encoded in the genome sequence) and hardware (organism), genome editors can operate as software engineers to hack biological systems without any particularly deep understanding of the complexity of the systems.

This article was inspired by the influential and entertaining essay by Yuri Lazebnik who argued that there are fundamental flaws in how biologists approach problems [1]. Lazebnik proposed that the complexity of biological systems calls for a systems approach to the study of living systems using a radio as a colourful metaphor to illustrate his points [1]. He postulated that, conceptually, a radio functions similarly to a biological system by converting a signal from one form into another using a signal transduction pathway [1]. Here I argue that Lazebnik’s thesis is limited by two fundamental principles of biology. First, the clear-cut separation between the software code—the operating information for living systems as written in the genome sequence—and hardware, or the organism itself [2, 3]. Second, biological systems are not optimally designed but are shaped by historicity—the historical constraints that are integral to their evolution [4]. This limits the extent to which principles of design and engineering can be useful in understanding and manipulating the structures and functions of living organisms. In contrast, modern day biologists are starting to operate as software engineers to hack biological systems and write apps despite a somewhat superficial understanding of the underlying complexity of these systems.
Original languageEnglish
Article number37
JournalBMC Biology
Publication statusPublished - 8 May 2017

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