Going synthetic: how scientists and engineers imagine and build a new biology.
PhD thesis, The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).
Synthetic biology practitioners look through an engineer's lens at the incredibly
complex, sensitive and seemingly endless resource of living reproductive material
and contemplate turning biology into a substrate – composed of modular, wellcharacterised parts – that can be used to design and build new functional devices
and systems. It is often explained that this vision for engineering biology may
deliver future forms of efficient drug production, renewable sources of biofuel,
methods to sense and remediate toxins and numerous other applications. Yet,
synthetic biology remains a field in its infancy, facing a barrage of interconnected
challenges across technical, social, ethical, legal and political realms. This
multifaceted dynamic makes it a timely and important locus for sociophilosophical investigation.
This thesis provides a highly empirical ethnographic account of two research
groups as they were challenged to design and build a microbiological machine for
the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM) in 2009.
The work examines forms of knowledge and material production in synthetic
biology and, in focusing on iGEM, argues that this field is not only a feat of
technical engineering, but also one of social engineering as it educates and
indoctrinates a next generation of researchers through this unique contest. In this
narrative, one discovers a microsocial sphere in which new ideas and biological
entities at the intersection of natural and synthetic kingdoms of life are being
constructed. Forms of teaching, tools, practices and processes that make
imagining, designing and building new living systems possible are illustrated. The
reader is also introduced to some international stakeholders and dynamics at play.
With gathering media interest, attention from art and design perspectives, as well
as publications across social, philosophical, political and legal studies of this
‘new’ biotechnology, there is a great need for the kind of detailed, insider view
that this thesis provides – it contributes to an informed space through which
constructive questions may be asked as the debate around engineering synthetic
life continues to unfold. As such, this work helps to enable a reflection on the
kinds of intervention possible in the process of dreaming up ideas of potential
future living machines. Involved collaborators, as well as the resistance of life
itself, will ultimately govern the limits of synthetic biology.
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