Biological Theory

, Volume 8, Issue 4, pp 324–333 | Cite as

Rational Engineering Principles in Synthetic Biology: A Framework for Quantitative Analysis and an Initial Assessment

  • Bernd Giese
  • Stefan Koenigstein
  • Henning Wigger
  • Jan C. Schmidt
  • Arnim von Gleich
Thematic Issue Article: Synthesis (σύνθεσις)


The term “synthetic biology” is a popular label of an emerging biotechnological field with strong claims to robustness, modularity, and controlled construction, finally enabling the creation of new organisms. Although the research community is heterogeneous, it advocates a common denominator that seems to define this field: the principles of rational engineering. However, it still remains unclear to what extent rational engineering—rather than “tinkering” or the usage of random based or non-rational processes—actually constitutes the basis for the techniques of synthetic biology. In this article, we present the results of a quantitative bibliometric analysis of the realized extent of rational engineering in synthetic biology. In our analysis, we examine three issues: (1) We evaluate whether work at three levels of synthetic biology (parts, devices, and systems) is consistent with the principles of rational engineering. (2) We estimate the extent of rational engineering in synthetic biology laboratory practice by an evaluation of publications in synthetic biology. (3) We examine the methodological specialization in rational engineering of authors in synthetic biology. Our analysis demonstrates that rational engineering is prevalent in about half of the articles related to synthetic biology. Interestingly, in recent years the relative number of respective publications has decreased. Despite its prominent role among the claims of synthetic biology, rational engineering has not yet entirely replaced biotechnological methods based on “tinkering” and non-rational principles.


Synthetic biology Bibliometric analysis Design Evolution Rational engineering Tinkering 

Supplementary material

13752_2013_130_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (72 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 73 kb)


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Copyright information

© Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Bernd Giese
    • 1
  • Stefan Koenigstein
    • 1
  • Henning Wigger
    • 1
  • Jan C. Schmidt
    • 2
  • Arnim von Gleich
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Technological Design and DevelopmentUniversity of BremenBremenGermany
  2. 2.Unit of Social, Culture and Technology StudiesDarmstadt University of Applied SciencesDarmstadtGermany

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