Making big promises come true? Articulating and realizing value in synthetic biology
Synthetic biology is an emerging approach to biotechnology that strives to use engineering principles and practices to design and make new organisms. Proponents of synthetic biology have big aspirations for this field, citing potential for an industrial revolution in biotechnology. This article is concerned with how value is being negotiated and constituted through practice in synthetic biology – through the promises being made, through the objects and products being produced, through the initiatives and institutions being established, and through the work practices and justificatory strategies of synthetic biologists. In particular, I focus on negotiations surrounding the making, use and circulation of BioBrick™ standard biological parts. BioBricks are presented as tools that will make genetic engineering more efficient and reliable, and are accompanied by a particular imagination of innovation and value creation in synthetic biology. But exploring valuation practices in action reveals a number of sites of ambivalence and contestation over the BioBrick approach to synthetic biology. Through a series of vignettes, I show how these negotiations over the promises and practices surrounding BioBricks are configuring the epistemic foundations and design space of the field, and are helping to define what value means in synthetic biology.
Keywordsbiocapital BioBricks moral economy standards synthetic biology value
I would like to thank the researchers in the synthetic biology community who have been and continue to be so generous with their time and insights, during both formal interviews and informal conversations. Versions of this article have been presented at the ‘Making it Big’ workshop at the University of Exeter (March 2011), at the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University (October 2010) and at the University of Chicago (November 2011), and in particular I would like to thank Gail Davies, Michael Fisch, Sabina Leonelli and Kaushik Sunder Rajan for their constructive feedback. My attendance at meetings and workshops has been supported through funding from the UK Synthetic Biology Standards Network (BB/F018746/1) and the ESRC Genomics Forum at the University of Edinburgh.
- Agapakis, C.M. (2011) Biological design principles for synthetic biology. PhD thesis, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.Google Scholar
- Arkin, A. and Endy, D. (1999) A standard parts list for biological circuitry. DARPA research proposal, available at DSpace, http://hdl.handle.net/1721.1/29794.
- Billings, L. and Endy, D. (2008) Synthetic biology. SEED Magazine Cribsheet #16. http://seedmagazine.com/images/uploads/16cribsheet.pdf.
- Campos, L. (2010) That was the synthetic biology that was. In: M. Schmidt, A. Kelle, A. Ganguli-Mitra and H. de Vriend (eds.) Synthetic Biology: The Technoscience and its Societal Consequences. London: Springer, pp. 5–22.Google Scholar
- Cooper, M. (2008) Life as Surplus: Biotechnology & Capitalism in the Neoliberal Era. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.Google Scholar
- Davies, G., Frow, E. and Leonelli, S. (2013) Bigger, faster, better? Rhetorics and practices of large-scale research in contemporary bioscience. BioSocieties, advance online publication 7 October, doi: 10.1057/biosoc.2013.26.Google Scholar
- Dussauge, I., Helgesson, C.-F., Lee, F. and Woolgar, S. (in preparation) On the omnipresence, diversity, and elusiveness of values in the life sciences. In: I. Dussauge, C.-F. Helgesson and F. Lee (eds.) Value Practices in the Life Sciences. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
- Harvey, D. (1990) The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.Google Scholar
- Jordan, K. and Lynch, M. (1992) The sociology of a genetic engineering technique: Ritual and rationality in the performance of the ‘plasmid prep’. In: Adele E. Clarke and Joan H. Fujimura (eds.) The Right Tools for the Job: At Work in Twentieth-Century Life Science. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, pp. 77–114.Google Scholar
- Knight, T. (2002) DARPA BioComp Plasmid Distribution 1.00 of Standard Biobrick Components. BioBricks Foundation RFC7; DSpace, http://hdl.handle.net/1721.1/21167.
- Knight, T. (2007) Draft Standard for BioBrick Biological Parts. BioBricks Foundation RFC10; DSpace, http://hdl.handle.net/1721.1/45138.
- Knight, T., Rettberg, R., Chan, L., Endy, D., Shetty, R. and Che, A. (2003) Idempotent Vector Design for the Standard Assembly of Biobricks. BioBricks Foundation RFC9, http://openwetware.org/images/b/bd/BBFRFC9.pdf.
- Knorr-Cetina, K. (1999) Epistemic Cultures: How the Sciences Make Knowledge. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
- Kohler, R.E. (1994) Lords of the Fly: Drosophila Genetics and the Experimental Life. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
- Lezaun, J. (2013) The escalating politics of Big Biology. BioSocieties, advance online publication 21 October, doi: 10.1057/biosoc.2013.30.Google Scholar
- Mackenzie, A. et al (2013) Classifying, constructing, and identifying life: Standards as transformations of the biological. Science, Technology & Human Values 38 (5): 701–722.Google Scholar
- Muniesa, F. (2012) A flank movement in the understanding of valuation. The Sociological Review 59 (s2): 24–38.Google Scholar
- National Academies of Science (2009) A New Biology for the 21st Century. Washington DC: National Academies Press.Google Scholar
- Pauly, P.J. (1987) Controlling Life: Jacques Loeb and the Engineering Ideal in Biology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar