, Volume 8, Issue 4, pp 432–448 | Cite as

Making big promises come true? Articulating and realizing value in synthetic biology

  • Emma K Frow
Original Article


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.


biocapital 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.


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Copyright information

© The London School of Economics and Political Science 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Emma K Frow
    • 1
  1. 1.Science, Technology & Innovation Studies, The University of EdinburghEdinburghUK

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