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Natural and engineered processes are constrained by conditions that are physically or chemically incompatible with each other. As a simple illustration of incompatible constraints, one of the first things we warn our children is that water is incompatible with electronic circuits. In biological context, incompatibilities regulate a cell’s ability to perform a given enzymatic reaction at a given place and time. For instance, photosynthesis cannot be carried out in the night’s dark, and certain enzymes are inactivated in the presence of antagonistic compounds.  In the case of N-fixing bacteria, for example, the nitrogenase enzyme is not compatible with oxygen, so this reaction is constrained to either an anaerobic location, or to cells that turn off oxygen-related processes in different times of the day. While the incompatible reactions outlined above are well understood, the overall presence and universality of incompatible reactions has not been systematically explored, especially in the case of subtler incompatibilities and inefficiencies. We are working to understand these interactions, and to use this knowledge to engineer better industrial processes and to find new ways to prevent and combat infectious disease.

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