Microorgansims and other cell types, such as plant and animal cells, see widespread use as cellular factories that are critical for making a wide variety of products. These include low-margin chemicals such biofuels, biorenewable chemicals and animal feed to high-margin commodities such as pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.
As with any production process, yield and productivity are critical components of economic success. Improving the yield and productivity of cellular factories is an important endeavor and a variety of tools can be brought to bear on the problem, including trendy methods with fancy names like ‘synthetic biology’ and ‘metabolic engineering’, which are really just modern iterations of genetic engineering.
However, the central problem facing those who wish to improve cellular factories with economic success is what we call the “robustness problem”. At the heart of this problem is the fact that microorganisms have spent millions of years evolving to perform certain tasks in specific ecological niches, and forcing them to make a desired end product under the often-stressful conditions required for economical industrial processes causes them to perform poorly.
Industrial microbiology has long sought a rapid and vigorous method to improve the performance of cellular factories under real-world industrial conditions and genetic engineering cannot achieve this task alone.
On the other hand, agricultural operations have long relied on the breeding—which is really just a targeted method of evolution—to improve the characteristics of domesticated plants and animals. Without a doubt, this has been wildly successful. Not surprisingly, industrial microbiologists have also long sought a robust method of evolutionary optimization to breed microorgansims for improved yield and productivity. Such a method was elusive until now.
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