The BioBrick™ road


Matters of intellectual property (IP) have been a characteristic concern of synthetic biology since its very birth as ‘open-source biology’. Although questions of IP in synthetic biology have intensified in recent years, little scholarly attention has yet been paid to the details of how such novel IP issues were actually first discussed and developed. In this article, I argue that a renewed orientation to specific empirical detail, to the bumpy road of untidy micropolitical stories and their piecemeal contributions – to the messy details of history – is essential in properly understanding the present IP landscape of this most contemporary of efforts to engineer life. Rather than coming out of any direct desire to gain legal clarity, concern for IP initially emerged organically out of larger discussions about the intended nature of the synthetic biology research community and its norms of openness and sharing. The goal of making biology ‘easier to engineer’ through the production of standard biological parts (BioBricks) has raised a number of these concerns in sharpest form. The emergence and development of IP issues in synthetic biology is thus best understood in the context of the ecology of practices and debates that have characterized the field in recent years.

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  1. 1.

    All written sources are quoted verbatim from the published source; all spoken sources are transcribed as heard.

  2. 2.

    For more on the early history of synthetic biology, see Campos (2009).

  3. 3.

    For more on Drew Endy's role in synthetic biology and his first encounter with Knight, see Campos (2012).

  4. 4.

    Knight (2003). A mock-up of a ‘Data Book’ with the ‘TTL’ covered by a Post-It note saying ‘MIT Bio Bricks’ was also created in 2003,

  5. 5.

  6. 6.

    ‘The word “Biobricks” is an adjective describing a particular set of things conforming to a particular standard’. Carlson (2007). On the Use of the Word ‘Biobrick’,

  7. 7.

    Endy referred on another occasion to ‘Hippie academics at iGEM pretending there's a research exemption and pretending successfully’. In fact, the research exemption has proven to be a mainstay of Endy's reasoning. When asked by Hamilton Smith at the 4.0 conference in Hong Kong in 2008 if there was a lot of red tape in the Registry's distribution system, Endy responded: ‘at the moment, not being the distributor of these components directly, what I can say is that I know of no paperwork involved whatsoever. In a large part that depends on one's belief in a research exemption’.

  8. 8.

    Although this was not shown at the workshop, much of the discussion overlaps with Endy's PowerPoint presentation: ‘Open Biotechnology & the BioBrick Public Agreement’,

  9. 9.

    Stephen Maurer added that, ‘this is exactly about keeping Microbesoft from emerging as monopolist in synthetic biology’, and said that ‘there is a left coast and right coast way of doing these things’. It was ‘very important’, he felt that ‘once you have a program to build an actual open-source thing out there that you do this very very openly as a way to demonstrate to the world that you don’t have actually a crypto-antitrust scheme out there, and that is a way to structure this debate’.

  10. 10.

    Such stated intentions apparently did not reach an audience member at the May 2011 Bio:Fiction event at the Naturhistorisches Museum of Vienna, who asked: ‘so is iGEM like Suzuki method or a new science methodology’? or Craig Venter, who announced to a large audience at LSE in 2008: ‘Biobricks are sort of a student project and it's fun and there's a lot of discussion around it’.

  11. 11.

    Creating the Organisms that Evolution Forgot: An ‘Any Questions?’ Debate on Synthetic Biology, LSE synthetic biology panel, 26 November 2009.

  12. 12.

    Endy describe ‘fabs’ as ‘service laboratories established in the early semiconductor industry to make it easier for academic and small industrial labs to design and manufacture small quantities of custom chips’. A ‘bio fab’ he describes as ‘designing and modeling biological devices in computers, then “cutting” them into biological form as the final step – much as silicon chips are planned, then etched’. See, Baker et al (2006).

  13. 13.

  14. 14.

    According to Rob Carlson, the 1.0 meeting ‘had a very academic feel’, while the 2.0 had ‘an interesting new flavor, namely that of money’. The 5.0 meeting, in contrast, was saturated with talk of IP (Carlson, 2006).

  15. 15.

    Reshma Shetty responded: ‘It's always a challenge for us. We are very invested in promoting community around synthetic biology’, noting that Gingko Bioworks would soon be contributing parts under the BPA, ‘but at the same time to, [sic] in order for us to make a living and continue to do the things we want to do, we have to build a sustainable business’, she said with a shrug. ‘So we kind of trade-off. We think it's really important to foster an open collection, but there are other aspects of our pipeline that we’ll be keeping proprietary’. She characterized it as a question of making ‘intelligent trade-offs, where the community will draw the most value from what we have to contribute’.

  16. 16.

    I am indebted to Mario Biagioli for this formulation.


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An earlier version of this article was first presented at a Workshop of the Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation (CSynBI) on ‘Synthetic Biology and Open Source: Normative Cultures of Biology’, organized by the BIOS Centre on 23–24 September 2010 and funded by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

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Campos, L. The BioBrick™ road. BioSocieties 7, 115–139 (2012).

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  • synthetic biology
  • intellectual property
  • BioBricks
  • iGEM
  • registry of standard biological parts
  • Drew Endy