At the heart of synthetic biology lies the goal of rationally engineering a complete biological system to achieve a specific objective, such as bioremediation and synthesis of a valuable drug, chemical, or biofuel molecule. However, the inherent complexity of natural biological systems has heretofore precluded generalized application of this approach. Directed evolution, a process which mimics Darwinian selection on a laboratory scale, has allowed significant strides to be made in the field of synthetic biology by allowing rapid identification of desired properties from large libraries of variants. Improvement in biocatalyst activity and stability, engineering of biosynthetic pathways, tuning of functional regulatory systems and logic circuits, and development of desired complex phenotypes in industrial host organisms have all been achieved by way of directed evolution. Here, we review recent contributions of directed evolution to synthetic biology at the protein, pathway, network, and whole cell levels.
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