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Going synthetic: how scientists and engineers imagine and build a new biology

Cockerton, Caitlin (2011) Going synthetic: how scientists and engineers imagine and build a new biology. PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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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.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2011 The Author
Library of Congress subject classification: H Social Sciences > HM Sociology
Sets: Departments > Sociology
Supervisor: Rose, Nikolas and Lentzos, Filippa

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