Are organisms like machines? Is biology like engineering? If so, how? If not, why not?
While these questions are not new, they are recast in the light of emerging scientific disciplines such as synthetic and systems biology.
For instance, it is standard to characterize machines as being built out of independent and standardized parts. It is this feature that allows a repairman to fix a broken oven by removing and replacing the culprit component. By comparison, systems biology draws our attention to the complex dependencies that exist between an organism’s parts, seeming to suggest some kind of fundamental difference between organisms and machines. Elsewhere however, in synthetic biology, an ideal has emerged in which organisms are constructed out of component functional parts, suggesting some affinity between organisms and the modular design of machines. How should we understand these differences? What is their relationship to the aims and methods used in each discipline? And finally, how do these new conceptualizations of the organism as a machine relate to evolution?
These are the types of questions which the Living Machines? research group will explore over the next three years. Funded by the Danish Research Council for Independent Research, the overarching aim is to explore how machine analogies and engineering methods shape our understanding of living things.