Despite the efforts that bioengineers have exerted in designing and constructing biological processes that function according to a predetermined set of rules, their operation remains fundamentally circumstantial. The contextual situation in which molecules and single-celled or multi-cellular organisms find themselves shapes the way they interact, respond to the environment and process external information. Since the birth of the field, synthetic biologists have had to grapple with contextual issues, particularly when the molecular and genetic devices inexplicably fail to function as designed when tested in vivo. In this review, we set out to identify and classify the sources of the unexpected divergences between design and actual function of synthetic systems and analyze possible methodologies aimed at controlling, if not preventing, unwanted contextual issues.
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