, Volume 5, Issue 2, pp 180–198 | Cite as

Design in synthetic biology

  • Adrian Mackenzie
Original Article


Significant transformations in biological technique and biological work are taking place in the aftermath of genomics. Although existing accounts of genomics and biotechnology contend that species differences and evolutionary histories have undergone ‘flattening’ by molecular techniques and concepts, analysis of design practices in synthetic biology suggests that vertical aggregations of biological technique, substance and work are occurring. This article analyses the movement of design processes into biology by examining software, diagrams and forms of collaboration intersecting in the production of biological constructs such as metabolic pathways, minimal genomes and biological standard parts. In characterising the design processes taking shape in synthetic biology, it develops the concepts of ‘meta-technique’ and ‘meta-material’. The notion of design as a meta-technique shows how synthetic biology assembles techniques and renders them available via practices of collaboration and standardisation. The notion of meta-material suggests ways of thinking about the dynamism of living things infused by models, constructs and layered work-processes. The practical re-deployment of biological techniques we see in the design software, the development of increasingly extensive and interlinked biological constructs assembled by design, and the shifting enrolments of biological work associated with design as a decoupled work process alter what counts as biological work and what counts as biological substance. The increasing salience of biological design has significant implications for how we conceptualise participation in biotechnology and biomedicine more generally.


synthetic biology design technique materiality emergence new media 



This research was undertaken with funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) UK. I would like to acknowledge the ESRC's support.


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Copyright information

© The London School of Economics and Political Science 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Adrian Mackenzie
    • 1
  1. 1.CESAGEN – Centre for Social and Economic Aspects of Genomics, IAS Building, Lancaster UniversityUK

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