That Was the Synthetic Biology That Was

  • Luis CamposEmail author


Visions of a synthetic engineering-based approach to biology have been a prominent and recurring theme in the history of biology in the twentieth century. Several major moments in this earlier history of attempts to redesign life are discussed: the turn-of-the-century prominence of experimental evolution and the coining of “synthetic biology” in 1912; early synthetic approaches to experimentally investigating the historical origin of life on the early earth; the goal of developing a “technology of the living substance” and the creation of life in the test tube as the ultimate epistemic goal for an engineered biology; the creation of synthetic new species in the first explicitly labeled efforts at “genetic engineering” in the 1930s; and the re-emergence of “synthetic biology” during the rise to prominence of novel recombinant DNA technology in the 1970s. The use of synthesis as a both mode of inquiry and of construction is highlighted. Aspects of the more recent history (the last decade) of contemporary synthetic biology are also explored.


  1. Bateson W (1913) Problems of Genetics. Yale University Press, New HavenGoogle Scholar
  2. Blakeslee AF, Bergner AD (1932). “Methods of Synthesizing Pure-Breeding Types with Predicted Characters in the Jimson Weed.” Science 76: 571–572Google Scholar
  3. Campos L (2006a) “The Birth of Living Radium.” Representations 97: 1–29Google Scholar
  4. Campos L (2006b) Radium and the Secret of Life. Harvard University, Department of The History of Science, Ph.D. dissertationGoogle Scholar
  5. Carlson R (2001) “Biological Technology in 2050,” published as “Open Source Biology and Its Impact on Industry,” IEEE Spectrum Google Scholar
  6. Carlson R (2006) “Synthetic Biology 2.0, Part IV: What’s in a name?” Synthesis blog.
  7. Carlson R, Brent R (2000) “Letter to DARPA on Open Source Biology,”˜rcarlson/DARPA_OSB_Letter.html
  8. Clark R (1968) J. B. S.: The Life and Work of J. B. S. Haldane, Hodder and Stoughton, London, p. 249Google Scholar
  9. Cohn D (2005) “Open-Source Biology Evolves,”
  10. Coleman W (1970) “Bateson and Chromosomes: Conservative Thought in Science.” Centaurus 15: 228–314CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Endy D (2008) “Engineering Biology; A Talk with Drew Endy,” Edge 237
  12. Hotchkiss R (1965) “Portents for a Genetic Engineering,” Journal of Heredity 56: 197–202PubMedGoogle Scholar
  13. Huneker JG (1920) Steeplejack. C. Scribner’s Sons, New York, p. 115Google Scholar
  14. Huxley JS (1942) Evolution: The Modern Synthesis, Allen & Unwin, LondonGoogle Scholar
  15. Kay L (1993) “Life as Technology: Representing, Intervening and Molecularizing,” Rivista di Storia della Scienza 1: 85–103Google Scholar
  16. Kay L (1996) The Molecular Vision of Life: Caltech, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Rise of the New Biology. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  17. Keller EF (2002) Making Sense of Life. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  18. Kingsland S (1991) “The Battling Botanist: Daniel Trembly MacDougal, Mutation Theory, and the Rise of Experimental Evolutionary Biology in America 1900–1912.” Isis 82: 479–509, p. 492CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Kohler R (1994) Lords of the Fly: Drosophila Genetics and the Experimental Life. Chicago University Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  20. Langdon-Davies J (1940) “Science for a New Audience,” Nature 145: 201–202Google Scholar
  21. Leduc S (1912) La Biologie Synthétique. A. Poinot, ParisGoogle Scholar
  22. Pauly PJ (1987) Controlling Life: Jacques Loeb and the Engineering Ideal in Biology. University of California Press, Berkeley, pp. 4–5, 7–8, 51, 86, 92–93, 115, 117, 199Google Scholar
  23. Pringle P (2008) The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov. Simon & Schuster, New York, pp. 4, 64, 171Google Scholar
  24. Ray, TS (1995) “An Evolutionary Approach to Synthetic Biology.” In C. G. Langton (ed.) Artificial Life: An Overview. MIT Press, Cambridge, pp. 179–207Google Scholar
  25. Reinheimer H (1931) Synthetic Biology and the Moral Universe. Rider, LondonGoogle Scholar
  26. Sinsheimer R (1975) “Troubled Dawn for Genetic Engineering,” New Scientist 16: 148–151Google Scholar
  27. Stent G (1968) “That Was the Molecular Biology That Was.” Science 160: 390–395PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Szybalski W (1978) “Nobel Prizes and Restriction Enzymes.” Gene 4: 181–182PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Zirkle C (1959) Evolution, Marxian Biology, and the Social Scene. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, p. 154Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.History DepartmentDrew UniversityMadisonUSA
  2. 2.Max-Planck-Institut für WissenschaftsgeschichteBerlinGermany

Personalised recommendations