Working with bioengineers: reflections from an experimental workshop hosted by Engineering Life

by Annie Hammang

In late 2016, Engineering Life hosted the third of its fourth experimental workshops, on Mapping Synthetic Biology Workflows. Collaborative work between engineering biology (or, alternatively, synthetic biology) and the social sciences has been around nearly as long as the field has. But while opportunity for collaborative work abounds, how to go about this collaboration isn’t always straightforward.  How to get individuals with different research goals, disciplinary jargon, styles of knowing things, and, importantly, relative power in shared projects, working productively on a shared goal or object, is far from obvious.  This particular interdisciplinary workshop went well enough that we decided it would be worth sharing in a report.

The workshop in question was a day-long event hosted at Arizona State University, organized around the idea of ‘workflows’ in synthetic biology. A banal enough seeming object, workflows can be seen to exemplify a key aim of synthetic biology – to make biological research more efficient by borrowing tools and practices from engineering. As social scientists on the Engineering Life team, we have grown used to seeing images of cyclical workflows containing “design,” “build,” “test,” and sometimes “learn” elements in synthetic biology presentations and articles. But we were curious to understand what lies behind this seemingly simple representation of work. Despite the consistency of this particular symbol in the field’s self-presentation, how you actually make biological work more efficient – with its tacit knowledge, lab drudgery, and capricious microbes and enzymes – is far from obvious to an outsider (and maybe even to an insider). And importantly, it’s not clear that this is strictly a technical exercise.  Value judgements and priorities are made along the road in deciding what practices to streamline, automate, or re-work; and so, a workflow, in an oblique, innocuous way, can open a conversation into what changes in practices, priorities, and knowledge production are underway in the field.

Image credit: Bridging the Gap: A Roadmap to Breaking the Biological Design Barrier – Scientific Figure on ResearchGate. Available from: [accessed 25 Feb, 2020]

The workshop itself involved synthetic biology practitioners from academia, industry, and national labs working alongside social scientists to map out and explore some of the ‘workflows’ being developed in their laboratories and facilities.  We deliberately left the idea of a ‘workflow’ open-ended to see what practitioners would decide to map out.  The 18 workshop participants split up into small groups; they spent the morning mapping out two different workflows underway in their facilities, and the afternoon troubleshooting, or debugging, the workflows generated in the morning.

These basic prompts allowed participants to work collaboratively on creating and exploring workflows from multiple perspectives. Moreover, both synthetic biology practitioners and social scientist participants said the exercise helped them see things they hadn’t noticed before.  In our report, we distill some of the key themes that arose. My personal favorite among these were the reflections on rationalization, especially as they were talked about through what we called “zombie processes.” (The event happened shortly after Halloween, and the term “zombie process” may or may not have been inspired by ghostly stickers that were available for participants to use in their ‘debugging’ activities…) Participants started to use the label of ‘zombies’ in a workflow to refer to vestigial processes and practices that served no apparent practical purpose in the current version of a given process. But they also weren’t seen as critical to remove. Particularly given how little we know about the mechanics of biology relative to other engineering processes, it can be hard to predict whether small, seemingly inconsequential elements of an existing process could dramatically affect other parts of a workflow. So, in a process of continual, cyclical improvement, practices that made sense in the beginning can get baked in, even if they no longer seem necessary – and part of the work of rationalization and continuous improvement is retaining these seemingly irrational elements.

We wrote this workshop report to capture key ideas and discussions from the day for those who participated in the workshop, and also as a point of reference for others interested in and experimenting with methods for collaboration among social scientists and the science and engineering community. I found the exercise helpful enough that I’ve adapted the workshop format for some of my own fieldwork in industry settings.  Some of my interest in studying synthetic biology industry includes exploring how public-facing, often inflationary, booster-ish rhetoric can be different from the slower, more modest realities inside these facilities. Holding workflow mapping workshops during my fieldwork has been helpful for me and my research participants to break out of the often conditioned, sometimes plain canned discussions of an interview setting; and also gives a bit more of a bird’s-eye view of process and strategy than participant observation of daily lab work might reveal.

So, for those interested in the particulars of how biological work is being negotiated and transformed in synthetic biology, or for those more broadly interested in collaborative methods and approaches for working across disciplines, please check out our short, colorful report with plenty of pictures from the event.

Workflows report (pdf)

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Curating Art and Science: Art’s Work in the Age of Biotechnology

We are pleased to have this guest blog from Science and Technology Studies scholar and curator Hannah Star Rogers.

Resurrecting the Sublime is a synthetic biology based artwork which presents the scents of extinct plants. A collaboration between synthetic biologist and designer Christina Agapakis, IFF supported olfactory researcher and artist  Sissel Tolaas, and artist Daisy Ginsberg, the artwork is produced through a combination of techniques, materials, and ideas from art and biotechnology. The result is an imagined fragrance from an extinct plant made possible by synthetic biology and olfactory research situated in a setting which includes pumice-type rocks, digital landscape renderings, and herbarium specimen images to invoke the plant’s original but lost habitat. By incorporating the sense of smell into the lost landscape, the artists gesture at the less obvious elements which are now missing: it is not only the individual plant but the habitat which is extinct. In the installation, the smeller links the smell and the landscape, reuniting them. Resurrecting the Sublime required the expertise of artists, designers, botanists, biochemists, biological engineers, and perfumers. It reaches for an aesthetic experience of the unknowable by presenting the possibility of fragrance of flowers which are now extinct using synthetic biology techniques. This work will be installed as part of the Art’s Work in the Age of Biotechnology: Shaping Our Genetic Futures at the Gregg Museum of Art and Design in Raleigh, NC in the fall of 2019. The show will be sponsored by the North Carolina State University’s Center for Genetic Engineering in Society (GES) and the NCSU Libraries Exhibits Program.

Resurrecting the Sublime functions as a provocation and critique of attempts to recreate living organisms from extinct genome fragments. Once the genetic sample is sequenced, paleogeneticists assist in identifying gene pathways that produce fragrant enzymes. The gene sequences are then synthesised, inserted into yeast, and cultured to produce the molecules, which are then extracted. Inhaled together, the samples offer a multidisciplinary approximation of the smell of a no longer living flower. In displaying alternative scents, the work emphasizes the role of interpretation in filling in the unknown elements between what can be gleaned through these sampling methods and what is lost beyond those technologies. Paleogenetists and botanists can help, but the situation necessitates interpretation.

This artwork implicitly asks what is not present when scientists attempt to recreate organisms based on limited genetic information and explores the limitations of the interpretation of genetic material based on preserved specimens alone. In this art-science work, the role of interpretation is brought to the fore on the sides of both synthetic biology and art. It also shows what is possible in art-science collaborations between different types of experts. The display of the scents always involves guesswork, since even when the scent-producing molecules are known, their exact proportions are not.

From in vitro meat created by Tissue Culture & Art to demonstrate the technical and aesthetic limitations of the technology even as companies rushed to commercialize the imagined applications of lab grown flesh, to Paul Vanouse’s Latent Figure Protocol which drew attention to the role of private labs in testing DNA samples for government agencies, the role of corporations in biotechnology have been the subject of many bioart critiques. Resurrecting the Sublime is no exception. Indeed this artwork adds questions about the way that conservation figures in a context where novel genetic material has new commercial value, and about the right to use extinct materials for profit, particularly those samples of now-extinct organisms gathered before the advent of the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization (ABS). These questions are interestingly complicated by the fact that Agapakis is the lead designer for Ginkgo Bioworks, a Boston-based company specializing in the creation of synthetic biology designs and scaling technologies that intends to eventually commercialize these scents.

Resurrecting the Sublime participates in a broader debate about the ways in which emerging biotechnologies can and should be used. It implicitly questions attempts to recreate other extinct species and the technical and ethical fallacies of replacement. The multiple possible fragrances the project offers suggests the difficulties of working with the limited genetic samples available from extinct organisms. Ideas about recreating an extinct organism are bound up with whether we can conceptualise a species outside its ecological niche. Through this aesthetic and accessible encounter, the project raises questions about what we lose when a species is lost and only its DNA remains. It offers us a sense of the plant through our senses, which offers visitors the bodily experience of the loss of a species.

As a step toward creating this Resurrecting the Sublime, Agapakis prototyped her ideas in a related artwork, Extinct Perfume. This piece displays three speculative aromas based on an extinct flowering plant, Hesperelaea palmeri created using conventional perfuming techniques. This prototype for Resurrecting the Sublime was shown at the Field Trial of Art’s Work in the Age of Biotechnology at the Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) in Raleigh, NC in 2017.

Christina Agapakis’ Extinct Perfume. Under three glass cloches are different versions of the scent of Guadalupe Island flower, which will never be smelled again. perfumes created by Symrise: Isaac Sinclair, Fanny Grau, and Maurice Roucel and scans of horticultural specimens at Art’s Work in the Age of Biotechnology at The Contemporary Art Museum in Raleigh, NC. Photo credit: York Wilson.
Christina Agapakis with Extinct Perfumes at Art’s Work in the Age of Biotechnology. Photo Credit: York Wilson.

Exhibits in the area of biotechnology are social and political interventions. Curators must necessarily take a stance as they invite visitors into public space that is the site of interventions, be they aesthetic, social, or technical. In the case of Resurrecting the Sublime, questions are being raised about a technology many visitors are familiar with through the popularized Jurassic Park vision of the DNA sequencing of dinosaurs and recent press coverage of the Woolly Mammoth Project. Given her research in this area and work at Ginkgo Bioworks, Agapakis is at the cutting edge of her field, yet in her artwork she emphasizes conservation over the potential for synthetic biology’s application in this area. The inevitable conclusion of this work is that synthetic biology can never be enough to completely replace the lost flower’s smell. Whatever the potentials of synthetic biology, they are no replacement for conservation practices. In this way, the piece both shows what synthetic biology can do and asks what it cannot. This artwork raises the kinds of questions scholars of science and technology frequently ask: what is the status of new knowledge and how should we understand its potential benefits and challenges for society?

Artists have long been involved with genetic interventions. Edward Steichen manipulated the chromosomes of delphiniums using colchicine, a home technique for creating plant mutants which was common at the time (Curry 2016). He selected those with large inflorescences and worked on cross breeding delphiniums for more than two decades. In 1936, he debuted a display of the oversized flowers at the MoMA. Steichen simultaneously aestheticized the genetic possibilities for the delphinium, while demonstrating the democratized power of these techniques for non-scientists who could engage with genetics with a few simple tools.

The Museum of Modern Art Archives. “Edward Steichen’s Delphiniums,” June 24–July 1, 1936

Continuing in this tradition of artistic experiments with genetics, the Art’s Work in the Age of Biotechnology Field Trial included work on genetics from bioartist Adam Zaretsky, CPNH curator and artist Rich Pell, visual artist Kristen Stollen, School of Visual Arts’ Biodesign Challenge team, animator Jon Davis, and the musical group Cyanotype. The artworks chosen for display recontextualize genetic information by bringing it out of the lab and into everyday situations. Biotechnology and art are fascinatingly intertwined, from our aesthetic appreciation of plants and animals which brought about breeding regimens to art about ethics in the genomic age. Dimensions of both biotechnology and art are on display through this exhibit. Viewers’ perceptions of art and science shape the politics of meaning ascribed to the pieces in Art’s Work in the Age of Biotechnology.

As an STS scholar and the curator for the exhibit, I have been interested in exploring the potential of an exhibit on technology with potentially complex social and political results, while also considering the way that artworks, particularly those that involve scientific expertise or technical materials, are understood by visitors. The exhibit aimed to engage the public about the social uses (familiar and new) that this technology might offer through provocative contemporary art which dealt directly with these technologies or offered new ways of contextualizing them.

Artworks like Resurrecting the Sublime and many others to be included in the 2019 Art’s Work in the Age of Biotechnology exhibit expand conversations about how art and science—in this case genetic engineering and biotechnology—are shaped by the work of artists, scientists, and the public. This exhibition aims to provoke visitors to think about their power in relationship to genetics and how non-scientists can shape debates and intervene in the social and technical processes around biotechnological developments.

More at the Resurrecting the Sublime website:


Very many thanks to all of the artists whose work appeared at CAM: Paul Vanouse, Richard Pell, Kirsten Stolle, Adam Zaretsky, John Davis, and Cyanotype; to the project team: Molly Renda, Fred Gould, Todd Kuiken, Chris Vitello, Elizabeth Pitts, Patti Mulligan, Sharon Stauffer, and particularly Christina Agapakis and Jane Calvert for their consultation in the development of this post.

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New Doing Engineering interactive website

By Pablo Schyfter

Engineering Life has launched a new website—‘Doing Engineering’—that presents different perspectives on engineering in a novel and playful way. The website is based on one of our workshops and like that workshop, tries to find diverse and enlightening ways to approach and answer the question, ‘what is engineering?’

The workshop, in retrospect

‘Doing Engineering’ was the first of Engineering Life’s experimental interdisciplinary workshops. Our project focuses on the interaction of synthetic biology and engineering in their many different forms. As a result, we dedicated our first workshop to exploring just what constitutes ‘engineering.’ We invited synthetic biologists, engineers, social scientists, policy-makers, philosophers and historians for a day of presentations, conversations and reflections.

‘Doing Engineering’ involved three dialogues, two roundtable discussions and three final reflections. The dialogues and discussions focused the basics of what engineering involves and what being an engineer entails, the engagement of synthetic biology with engineering, and the particular challenges faced by those trying to engineering with living things. The reflections were prepared by three participants as the day progressed, and each provided a distinctive perspective on what we accomplished through our dialogues and discussions.

However, the day began with each person introducing himself or herself. In the spirit of experimentation, we asked each participants to provide us with an image that for them captures what engineering is. As part of introducing ourselves, we explained why we chose that particular image. The images and the thoughts expressed differed from each other in many ways and captured how complex and diverse our understandings of engineering are. We found them so interesting that we decided to share them with a broader audience.

‘Doing Engineering,’ the website

The ‘Doing Engineering’ website offers visitors the chance to explore what images our participants chose and what they said about them. It offers a unique way to approach the question, ‘what is engineering?’ It also allows visitors to chart their own path through our participants’ thoughts.

The home page of the website presents our participants’ images, as interpreted by illustrator Sara Julia Campbell. Upon clicking any of our participants’ images, a visitor is taken to a page which presents selections from what that particular participant told us about engineering. If clicked, each of those quotations reveals three quotations by other participants that capture similar ideas or offer a contradictory viewpoint. That is, each quotation reveals thoughts that expand, enlighten or challenge it. These thoughts by others also serve as links to different pages, each with those others’ image and thoughts. These labyrinthine links let visitors decide how to wander through our many thoughts on engineering.

We offer people ideas, rather than tell them what to think. There is no single view of engineering that we advocate or hold to be better than the others. The ‘Doing Engineering’ website is a tool for people to explore engineering and with which to develop their own conclusions and opinions.

Join our exploration

Visit ‘Doing Engineering’ and join us in our exploration of synthetic biology and engineering! Navigate your way through the images and ideas that we collected and discover new ways to think about professions that shape our world and our societies in countless ways.

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A systemic separation of concerns: reflections on Synthetic Biology UK 2018

By Sophie Stone

Last month, I attended the annual synthetic biology conference, Synthetic Biology UK 2018 (SBUK2018). For those unfamiliar with the field’s conference landscape, SBUK is an annual event positioned as “the premiere UK synthetic biology meeting”. It is organised by the Biochemical Society and normally supported in some capacity by the hosting organisation for that year. This year, SBUK2018 was hosted and co-organised by BrisSynBio, the University of Bristol’s Synthetic Biology Centre (and one of the six major Synthetic Biology Centres in the UK).

Over the two days, SBUK2018 showcased some fascinating science and some clever tools and techniques. Highlights for me included two inspiring talks on protocell development by researchers from the University of Bristol and the Max Planck Institute, an engaging talk about advances in analysing complex biological mixtures, and some great start-up mentality. Richard Owen also managed to insert a cat meme into his slides so also automatically deserves credit.

Figure 1. SBUK2018’s one and only instance of cat meme usage

However, inspiring science and cats aside, what struck me most about SBUK2018 were the organisational barriers hindering social and scientific integration.

For me, this started with the very identity and orientation of the event itself. In effect, there were two parallel conferences: one to discuss the science, another to discuss the social dimensions. ‘SBUK2018’ itself was publicised as a two-day conference containing the ‘science programme’. Meanwhile, a separately run three-day programme of “synthetic biology satellite sessions, workshops and public engagement activities aligned with SBUK2018” was organised by BrisSynBio’s umbrella institute, Bristol BioDesign Institute (BBI). This included two afternoons dedicated to discussing responsible research and innovation (RRI), another event highlighting different social dimensions of synthetic biology (such as biosecurity, sustainability, language use, and art), and a public engagement session.

The epistemic distance created by having two programmes was reinforced by their actual physical organisation. The two RRI workshops overlapped with the science programme, forcing delegates to choose between scientific and social dimensions. These sessions were also held in separate buildings, quashing any casual idea of ‘dipping in and out’ of parallel sessions. The rest of the social science and public engagement activities were held after the science programme ended. Judging by the attendance at the science programme’s final presentations, few remained until the end of the science let alone any ‘book-ending’ peripheral events.

Meanwhile, the 25 scientific presentations of the science programme focused on tools, techniques, results and outcomes with negligible intellectual engagement of any broader social dimensions. The science programme did include two presentations and 10 posters discussing RRI; however, subsequent individual discussions I had with scientists about RRI were largely about its efficacy or confusion over what much of it meant. Additionally, many social science colleagues just outright missed parts of the science programme by simple merit of attending their own events. These examples do not, of course, do justice to the positive experiences I had, nor the complexity of engagement between scientists and social scientists. However, I couldn’t help but feel the positive interactions occurred despite the conference organisation, not because of it.

The distribution of event planning activities across multiple bodies itself is not unusual; different institutions are often better suited to organising different events. However, what particularly struck me was the positioning of these two programmes in relation to each other using words such as ‘satellite’ and ‘aligned’. ‘Satellite’ imagery (no pun intended) invokes ideas of the social dimensions events as separate, ‘tacked on’ and only peripherally connected to SBUK2018’s science programme. Whereas ‘alignment’ imagery invokes them as subordinate to the science programme. SBUK2018 was the place for discussing science, and the periphery was the place for discussing social science interests and public engagement.

For a community as reportedly vibrant and multidisciplinary as synthetic biology, this, to me, is problematic. Indeed, SBUK2018 declares itself a space for “a cohesive, vibrant and multidisciplinary community that is inclusive, open to innovation, collaboration and supportive of young talent”. The science programme’s RRI items notwithstanding, I was still left feeling it was primarily intended for scientists. This orientation is at best an own goal, and at worst a perpetuation of epistemic hierarchies within synthetic biology. Either way, it is a missed opportunity for the ‘premiere’ meeting in the UK to demonstrate how integrated synthetic biology can be.

Figure 2. Visual representation of SBUK2018 and Satellite Sessions

Upon reflection, this post could easily be interpreted as a pessimistic commentary on SBUK2018. Certainly, SBUK2018 did little to deliver on the promise of the “vibrant, cohesive and multidisciplinary community” I was hoping to experience as a social scientist. Equally certainly, the social science interests felt distinctly separate. However, mostly this just struck me as odd and not particularly reflective of the desire to integrate that I’ve seen within the synthetic biology community at Edinburgh. What emerges instead is an opportunity to learn from what didn’t work at SBUK2018, and for doing it better next year.

It is worth ending this post by noting that Balmer et al (2015) alert us to some potential characteristics of productive multidisciplinary collaborations that may prove useful. Two particularly pertinent ones include no one group having epistemic authority over the direction of the research, and social science interests not just being ‘tacked on’ (Balmer et al, 2015:16). For me, SBUK2018 failed in translating these characteristics to the conference space. Perhaps the organisers of SBUK2019 might consider these a little more robustly in planning next year’s event.

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The history of DNA synthesis – a workshop on history for Synthetic Biology and beyond

One way to give a history to something like synthetic biology is to reduce it down to a narrower collection of parts, and then produce a history of the origins and development of those parts. Each part that gets followed over time will twist and turn according to its own purposes, unable to know what is going to come next, and much more interested in the then and there. Such an approach, if replicated for a range of parts, provides a set of analyses, a skeleton, ready for fleshing out and fully fashioning. This is what I am doing by selecting out ‘DNA synthesis’ and trying to tell its history. In the process we will learn much that puts synthetic biology in a new light. After all, as young as the identity ‘synthetic biologist’ might be, most of its adopters have had long careers, many based in the biological sciences. Most people are therefore very comfortable with the idea that contemporary sciences and technologies do not arrive with a flash, but are pulled together from a variety of different and somewhat unconnected developments that took place over time. It is all the more distressing and depressing then when others come along and try to bang on about how new it all is, never before seen, never even contemplated before, etc. etc.

I am amongst a group of historians of science who have attempted to use history as a lens through which to perceive synthetic biology, find its parts, and explore their trajectories and significances over time. In return, synthetic biology has challenged my own category making, asking me to think again about science, technology, engineering, and their relations. Having now been convinced that there is much more going on when we talk about engineering, I am keen to see this agenda progress within my research community of historians and philosophers of science, and so I can be grateful to synthetic biology for that gift (my more direct gratitude goes to the people who won the Engineering Life project funding, and whose research convinced me that engineering presents important epistemological challenges).

Left to right: Dr. Jody Roberts (Director of Science History Institute’s Institute for Research and managing director of SHI); Dr. Dominic Berry (Research Fellow, Engineering Life Project); Marv Caruthers (Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry at the University of Colorado, Boulder and pioneer in DNA synthesis); Dr. Robert G. W. Anderson (President and CEO of Science History Institute), in the biochemistry and biotechnology section of the SHI museum. My thanks to Samantha Blatt of the SHI for taking this photograph and permission to use it.

The above introduction, which includes a tiny bit of my biography, and a whole heap of ‘reasonable fellow’ talk, was designed to get you in the mood for this post, which reports on an event that the Engineering Life project organised at the end of 2017. Last December, in collaboration with the Science History Institute in Philadelphia, we organised a 1 day workshop addressing the history of DNA synthesis. The chemistry, capacity, technological expression, and history of DNA synthesis seems to me to be an excellent way to cover large swathes of the history of ‘that thing called synthetic biology’, while also contributing important findings and context that matters for the history of modern biology and biotechnology more generally. Where we have countless books, articles, and resources dedicated to the history of DNA sequencing, rarely does DNA synthesis get a mention, let alone its own dedicated treatment. I am pursuing a series of oral history interviews, archive research and museum object investigations to produce an overview of the history of DNA synthesis.* The workshop I organised last year was a way to gather further information from those either researching the same or similar topics, and just as importantly, hear from those who helped establish a synthesis market, or are now trying to expand the industry. The topic of DNA synthesis requires us to be historians of chemistry, technology, biology, and engineering all at once.** As you can imagine, it was an interesting and challenging day!

Dr: Emily Leproust (CEO Twist Bioscience, a large DNA synthesis provider founded in 2013).

In the next few months we will publish a report that gives an overview of the papers presented and the discussions that followed, in this post I just want to record the presenters, and also my depth of gratitude to everyone who agreed to participate. You can find them and their abstracts below.

What’s next?
For myself, the next outing for my research on the history of DNA synthesis will be at the Society for the History of Technology annual conference, provided the panel is accepted! I am interested in how the work of people like Ann Johnson in the history of engineering can be picked up and applied to the creation of synthesised DNA, in the variety of forms this might take, and expressed in a variety of techniques and technologies. Following synthesised DNA allows us to appreciate the material-semiotics of biology and biological technology, while also attending to material culture (the tools, equipment, and objects associated with these practices that one might want to display in a museum).

This is also, as far as I know, the last blog post I will write for the Engineering Life project. It was a great privilege to work as part of Jane Calvert’s team, and the experience of collaborating with social scientists, at times learning social science methods, is one that will stay with me. I have learnt and will continue to learn a great deal from them, and owe them much more than I contributed.

*If you would be interested in talking to me about the history of DNA synthesis please do get in touch.

**Some might want to put ‘medicine’ in there too, but I bloody hate the history of medicine, so I’m happy to just get on with doing my thing, and let them all come along later to tell me why I’m impoverishing my account by not addressing medicine. Or more likely, come along and tell me why it all only really matters once we recognise the medical context. GO AWAY! Take your money and leave me in peace!! No, I’m not feeling OK. Can you get me a water? Thanks, that’s kind.

Alok Srivastava & Elihu M. Gerson –Understanding Wholes: Synthesis of Viable Genomes and Organisms:

Jane Calvert –Synthetic yeast: a tale of sixteen synthetic chromosomes

L. Scott Cole –Selling DNA Synthesis: Applied Biosystems’ DNA Synthesis Business from 1989-1992

Emily Leproust –Development of DNA Synthesis

Marvin H. Caruthers –The Chemical Synthesis of DNA, RNA, and Certain Analogs

Erin McLeary, Stephanie Lampkin, Amanda Mahoney –The material heritage of DNA synthesis?

Jeff Johnson –Factors shaping research in synthetic-chemical biology in the postwar West-German context (1945-1990): Report on a work in progress

Robert Smith –Visions of value and the making of mega-chunks



Workshop Abstracts (by author surname)

Jane Calvert
Synthetic yeast: a tale of sixteen synthetic chromosomes

The synthetic yeast project is an international effort to comprehensively re-design and construct the genome of the yeast species Saccharomyces cerevisiae wholly from laboratory-synthesised DNA. The dual aims of the project are to learn more about yeast biology and to develop improved yeast strains for industrial use. Many changes are being made to the genome to further these aims, including removing repetitive regions of DNA, constructing a ‘neochromosome’, and building in the ability to evolve the yeast on demand. Questions arise about whether the completed synthetic yeast – known as Saccharomyces cerevisiae 2.0 – will be a different species from the wild-type.
Unlike other branches of synthetic biology, which focus on building discrete genes or genetic circuits, the synthetic yeast project is an example of construction at the whole genome scale. It follows in the steps of previous viral and bacterial whole genome synthesis projects, but is approximately an order of magnitude larger. The size of the project requires an internationally distributed effort, involving the coordinated activity of eleven labs across North America, Europe, China, Singapore, and Australia. The sixteen chromosomes are distributed around this international consortium.
This presentation draws on interviews with members of the project consortium, and visits to the different laboratories. Although all the synthetic chromosomes are designed at the PI’s laboratory in NYU (with the exception of the neochromosome), the individual laboratories have pursed different synthesis and assembly strategies. For example, in Tianjin, China, one of the chromosomes was entirely synthesized by an undergraduate class as part of a ‘build-a-genome’ course. These different chromosomes also have different qualities and characteristics, and the scientists often refer to these to identify their ‘favourite’ chromosome. In addition, several of the laboratories are starting to design their own novel, bespoke chromosomes.
Some hope that the synthetic yeast project marks the start of a new era of whole genome ‘writing’ projects, which will involve the synthesis of the genomes of a range of species, including the human. Whether or not this initiative progresses as planned, I argue that whole genome synthesis projects would benefit from increased sociological, historical and philosophical attention.

Marvin H. Caruthers
The Chemical Synthesis of DNA, RNA, and Certain Analogs

The chemical synthesis of DNA/RNA dates from the mid 1950s in the laboratory of Sir Alexander Todd. Shortly thereafter Gobind Khorana pioneered the use of synthetic DNA/RNA for solving various biological problems such as the genetic code and the use of sequence defined oligonucleotides as templates for DNA/RNA polymerases and to solve biological problems including the synthesis of genes and studies on how proteins recognize DNA/RNA. Following this initial work, Bob Letsinger developed an entirely new synthesis methodology that was used in the initial DNA sequencing methods from Sanger’s laboratory and for synthesizing the human insulin and human growth hormone genes – developments that led directly to the establishment of the biotechnology industry. A brief review of these methodologies and some of the lessons learned about pioneering basic research will be discussed.

From 1977-1982 Professor Marvin Caruthers developed the use of nucleoside phosphoramidites as stable monomers for the solid phase synthesis of DNA and RNA. This ground-breaking chemistry was far superior to anything at that time and, even today some 35-40 years later, remains the methodology of choice for synthesizing DNA/RNA. Its chemical accuracy has enabled it to be deployed from the micromolar scale of DNA oligomer preparation for various clinical applications down to microdot, nano-scale chemistry that is used for numerous biological, biochemical, diagnostic, and chemical applications. Currently and in collaboration with Agilent, Prof. Caruthers has adapted this chemistry to the synthesis of DNA on glass chips (244,000 DNA segments per chip at 200-300 nucleotides in length/segment). For many different research applications, this on-chip process is performed at the level of 6 to 20 billion nucleotide condensations per day (the equivalent of several human genomes of 3 billion base pairs). Moreover, this work is now at the core of current DNA and RNA sequencing technologies. Modern biology could not have achieved its explosion of discovery over the last 40 years without the near-flawless phosphorus chemistry that the phosphoramidite methodologies have delivered to science and technology.

Notwithstanding the tremendous success of this basic phosphorus chemistry, Prof. Caruthers continues to develop the chemistry of key P(III) species for new purposes. If time permits, the synthesis of a new analog called thiomorpholino DNA will be discussed and certain initial biological results will be presented.

L. Scott Cole
Selling DNA Synthesis: Applied Biosystems’ DNA Synthesis Business from 1989-1992

From its founding in 1981 until its acquisition in 2008, Applied Biosystems’ Incorporated (ABI, Foster City, CA) was the leading supplier of instrument and reagent platforms for life science research. In 1985, the company introduced the Model 380A DNA Synthesizer, its first commercial platform for phosphoramidite-based DNA synthesis. Over the next several years, a combination of improvements in both DNA synthesis instrumentation and reagents enabled the company to achieve a dominant position in the DNA synthesis market worldwide. In this talk I will provide a commercial perspective on oligonucleotide synthesis based on my experience as Product Manager for DNA synthesis at ABI from 1989 through 1992. This was a time at which the need for synthetic oligonucleotides was growing rapidly, primarily based on rapid growth in the use of the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR). I will discuss ABI’s entry into the DNA synthesis market, the competitive landscape at the time, how the company’s DNA synthesis team was structured and how it operated, and I’ll provide a sense of ABI’s corporate culture at the time.

Jeff Johnson
Factors shaping research in synthetic-chemical biology in the postwar West-German context (1945-1990): Report on a work in progress

The purpose of the present paper is to examine some of the factors affecting the political, institutional, and scientific context of research in synthetic-chemical biology in postwar West Germany, 1945-1990. It is well-known that the West-Germans were considerably behind their colleagues in other western nations (particularly Britain, France, and the United States) in taking up the challenges and opportunities posed by the postwar development of molecular biology and the various technologies leading to genetic engineering. In some ways this is a surprising phenomenon, because at least until the 1930s the Germans had been among the world leaders in a field that I will designate as synthetic-chemical biology, using the terminology of Emil Fischer in 1915; unaware of Fischer’s earlier terminology, Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker introduced the term “synthetic biology” into the German context in 1983, applying it specifically to the synthesis of genes.

Obviously one of the critical factors affecting the German situation was the impact of National Socialism, not only its purges of German scientific institutions but also the destruction brought about by its failed war of conquest. Beyond these factors were others inherent in the post-Nazi German context of the mid-20th century. In this paper, I would like to examine some of these factors by looking at specific examples of German organic chemists and biochemists in their institutional contexts, considering both the elite Max Planck Institutes (such as the MPI for Biochemistry in Munich and the MPI for Medical Research in Heidelberg) as well as university institutes in related fields. I am also interested in considering the extent to which the German chemical and pharmaceutical industry in the postwar era continued its decades-old tradition of promoting close academic-industrial collaboration. Finally, I would like to examine the political context, including German debates over the ethics and risks of biotechnology and genetic engineering during the 1980s. When Winnacker introduced the term synthetic biology, the German debate was just beginning; it culminated in 1990 in the first German Genetic Engineering Law, whose origin should be seen in the light of the historical and cultural burden of Nazi atrocities.

Emily Leproust
Development of DNA Synthesis

Oligonucleotide synthesis is the chemical synthesis of nucleic acid fragments with defined sequences. The first chemically synthesized dinucleotide was demonstrated in 1955, marked as the beginning of the era of oligonucleotide synthesis. After decades of research and progressive improvements by pioneers such as H. Gobind Khorana, Robert H. Letsinger, and Marvin H. Caruthers, a breakthrough was achieved in 1983 when Caruthers developed phosphoramidite chemistry, which involves stepwise addition of phosphoramidite building blocks derived from protected nucleotides upon activation by tetrazole prior to coupling. The phosphoramidite method together with the advancement in solid phase chemistry made possible the development and commercialization of the first automated DNA synthesizer by ABI in the 1980s, and broadened the accessibility of synthetic oligonucleotides to biologists. While the core phosphoramidite method remains virtually unchanged in the last three decades, significant advancements have been made on the engineering front, enabling highly parallel in-situ synthesis of oligonucleotides in array format, in which oligonucleotides are directly synthesized on the surface in a spatially addressable manner. Hundreds of thousands of oligonucleotides can now be synthesized in parallel, together with the advancement of Next-Generation Sequencing technologies in the last decade, fueling the rapid growth of many fields including genome-scale screening and editing, large-scale synthetic biology, and DNA-based data storage.

Erin McLeary, Stephanie Lampkin, Amanda Mahoney –
The material heritage of DNA synthesis?

What is the material heritage of DNA synthesis? In this interactive session, workshop attendees and CHF museum staff will collectively imagine a museum of DNA synthesis. What artifacts would be displayed in this museum? What stories would those artifacts tell? For what audiences should those stories be told? And what would it take to move from an imagined museum to a collecting initiative that acquires and preserves the material heritage of DNA synthesis?

Robert Smith
Visions of value and the making of mega-chunks

This workshop addresses DNA synthesis as historiographically neglected. Today DNA synthesis seems to be going through somewhat of a resurgence. For instance, in Britain the UK taxpayer has indirectly contributed more than £150m to synthetic biology projects. Included in this figure is roughly £17,528,700.00 towards six so-called ‘DNA foundries’. In the United States the Broad Institute has recently been awarded a five-year, US$32 million contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to design, fabricate, and test large DNA sequences at scale. Similarly, and with much bombast, a team with George Church, Jef Boeke and Andrew Hessel have proposed a new grand challenge — the synthesis of large scale chunks of DNA — accessible for the modest price tag of £500m.

The rhetoric surrounding many of these investments is unsurprising to anyone following new and emerging forms of knowledge production and technology creation. And yet at the same time, past work has shown that such claims are not isolated or detached from reality. Perhaps the most blunt example one can give is to point to the fact that claims about future value are excellent ways to enrol people into a project. We should then pay analytic attention to claims about the purpose of doing DNA synthesis and the ways that they are built into websites of objects, people, places, and values.

In this talk I will take a first pass at doing just that. To do so I will draw on early reflections from on-going documentary work and observational material at synthetic biology conferences around the world. I will examine the cultures that such narratives claim to produce, the values that they embed and the significance of these things, both for life as we know it and for the social and human sciences as we relate to the natural and physical sciences.

Alok Srivastava & Elihu M. Gerson
Synthesis of Viable Genomes and Organisms: Understanding Wholes

This paper explores some issues raised by the synthesis of complete functional units – genes, pathways, biochemical complexes and the extension of this work to the making of autonomous wholes such as viable genomes and cells. Synthesis experiments generate a unique kind of understanding, achieved by de-composing and re-composing functional units. Such efforts directly address the descriptive and interactional complexities of biological systems and their constitutive mechanisms.

Synthesis experiments interpret mechanisms by demonstrating that articulated parts, refined and reassembled, behave as we expect them to. Synthesis experiments reveal and mark gaps between the explanations and manipulative results, and help specify the efforts to fill these gaps.

In synthesis experiments, scientists must learn to deal with incomplete systems that are not (yet) complete or viable. Laboratory procedures act as scaffolds that provide functional support for intermediate stages of construction. For example, a database containing the sequence of bases of a full bacterial genome keeps the order and content of the organism’s genome while it is being chemically synthesized and biochemically assembled. This computer file thus functions simultaneously as a scaffold for the genome under construction, and as an important part of the laboratory’s work organization.

The laboratory thus acts in place of the cell, supporting and enabling the assembly process by developing and deploying a set of protocols that specify needed resources and context to the incomplete system. These protocols also serve as bookkeeping devices that mark the parts of explanation(s) that are not yet realized as manipulation capacities.

Synthesis thus operates by mapping and tracking the relationships between de-composition procedures and corresponding re-composition procedures. Making and testing complete functional units enforces a reconciliation among the different groups of procedures.It is useful to understand synthesis experiments as explaining biological systems by carrying out re-composition experiments corresponding to de-composition experiments. A particular kind of understanding is achieved by these full cycles of de-composition and re-composition experiments of functional units and autonomous wholes that directly address the descriptive and interactional complexities of biological systems and their possible mechanisms.

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How to face the unknown: how the Convention on Biological Diversity can change its approach to scientific uncertainty

By Deborah Scott

Next week, delegates to the scientific advisory body of one of the world’s largest environmental treaties, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), will gather in Montréal. If it is like most recent meetings of the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA), delegates face a week of increasingly long days (and nights) of contentious debate around how to understand and respond to pressing global environmental challenges. And if it follows the pattern of the past decade, delegates will continue to sabotage the CBD by avoiding debate on how to act in the face of uncertainty.

Scientific uncertainty is an unavoidable aspect of international environmental governance. In these arenas, scientific literature is rarely unified in identifying what the problems are, let alone able to provide clear advice on how to solve them. This is particularly the case for biodiversity, as ecological knowledge is marked by “persistent and often intractable uncertainties and a high level of ignorance.” Thus, while most environmental treaties claim to be ‘science-based,’ they must also have strategies for governing both what is insufficiently understood and what cannot be known with our current scientific tools.

A clear example of this is the history of “New and Emerging Issues.” This mechanism was introduced in 2006 to allow issues of particular novelty and urgency to be added to the treaty’s programme of work. The first “New” issue was biofuels, which led to almost a decade of contentious negotiations on how to “promote the positive and mitigate the negative impacts of biofuels on biodiversity.” Ultimately, it resulted in little agreement and minimal guidance, and along the way “New and Emerging Issues” became “a poisoned chalice,” as an observer told me.

Indeed, since biofuels no issue has been successfully introduced as a New and Emerging Issue. In 2008, seven criteria for identifying “New and Emerging Issues” were established, including: new evidence of unexpected and significant impacts on biodiversity; evidence of limited tools to mitigate negative impacts on biodiversity; and the urgency of addressing the issue. Since 2010, the CBD’s decision-making body, the Conference of the Parties (COP), has been mulling over whether one issue meets these criteria: synthetic biology.

One of the uncertainties around synthetic biology is its definition. In 2016, the CBD COP finally agreed on an operational definition – “synthetic biology is a further development and new dimension of modern biotechnology that combines science, technology and engineering to facilitate and accelerate the understanding, design, redesign, manufacture and/or modification of genetic materials, living organisms and biological systems.” More snappily, the critical NGO ETC Group describes it as “extreme genetic engineering.” Both point to synthetic biology’s connections to pre-existing biotechnology and its goals to go further. While some argue that the greater precision of synthetic biology tools decreases uncertainties regarding ecological, human health and other impacts, others argue that synthetic biology opens up new areas of uncertainty, raising questions of whether existing regulatory regimes or risk assessment and management methodologies are adequate to identify and mitigate potentially new harms.

The CBD’s decision-making body, the Conference of the Parties (COP), has discussed four times whether synthetic biology should be added, in 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016. Each time, the Parties have called on each other to “take a precautionary approach” to synthetic biology. Whether or not to act with precaution is an on-going debate in international environmental governance, often pitted between the USA (against) and the European Union (for). In the case of the CBD, not only is the USA not a Party, but the treaty is already committed to a precautionary approach, as found in the treaty preamble.

But as many times as the COP has invoked a “precautionary approach” to synthetic biology, it has dodged the question of what this means. When faced with insufficient evidence to determine if the New & Emerging Issues criteria are met, the COP keeps calling for more scientific evidence and more ‘robust’ analysis. They repeatedly delay action, seemingly in the hope that science will provide a clear answer.

Uncertainties around synthetic biology’s potential impacts on biodiversity won’t be neatly resolved any time soon. The CBD COP must make a political decision about how to act in the context of ecological, economic, social, and other kinds of uncertainties. The response to such uncertainties cannot simply be to demand more, and more certain, science.

The upcoming SBSTTA meeting will consider how to treat the New and Emerging Issues criteria – as a mandatory list, as context-specific guidelines, or otherwise. In interviews that I conducted with observers, delegates, and Secretariat staff members, these criteria were described as nearly impossible to meet if interpreted as a mandatory list.

If CBD Parties are to apply precaution rather than simply invoking it, they must be able to respond to threats before harm is certain. Thus, delegates should take the Secretariat’s suggestion that the extent of each criterion’s application be determined on a case-by-case basis. Furthermore, I would urge CBD delegations to consider New and Emerging Issues as a mechanism specifically for tackling issues saddled with intrinsic scientific and social uncertainties – emerging technologies and sciences for which there is not yet evidence of significant impacts, but there are questions about how to identify and measure potential impacts, who should fund such research, what principles should guide their development.

What would it mean for synthetic biology to become a New and Emerging Issue? The CBD’s outcomes are almost entirely soft law, influencing international norms rather than specific, legally-binding commitments; the CBD is not going to “stop” synthetic biology. But acting with precaution doesn’t just mean saying “No.” The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has recommended that for deeper and more intractable scientific uncertainties, there is a responsibility to gather a diversity of relevant knowledges, engage a plurality of different perspectives, and interrogate the full range of alternative options. The designation of “New and Emerging Issue” could be a commitment by the CBD to undergo such processes.

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An evil person’s guide to doing public engagement badly

A few weeks ago Deborah Scott and I were invited to participate in an interdisciplinary workshop organised by the Eastern ARC on synthetic biology and society. For my presentation I basically gave Claire Marris’ paper ‘The Construction of Imaginaries of the Public as a Threat to Synthetic Biology’. As this would have been too lazy though, I changed things up, by using the paper to create an evil person’s guide to doing public engagement badly. Here is that guide! (Seeing as we are heading into iGEM season this post might also be of particular use to any teams planning on doing some public engagement). Steps 1-4 are my own, but reflect what I learnt from the Marris paper.

Step 1 – Misunderstand what publics is

Stills taken, from top to bottom: Independence Day (1996) rights Twentieth Century Fox; Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) rights Michael White Productions, National Film Trustee Company, Python (Monty) Pictures; The Hunger Games (2012) rights Lions Gate.

Evil guidance: Make sure that you only conceive of the public as either; a group that needs saving from itself; as a neutral mass of lemmings whose views can be easily swayed; or as wild-eyed political extremists.

In her paper Marris looks at the ways in which the public is imagined by policy makers and by scientists, these three versions of the public being amongst the most common. So instead of relying on these imaginaries of the public, public engagement folk should be open to drawing on a far wider range of conceptualisations of the public, and be aware that the publics they engage in any given exercise are necessarily limited. In many cases they might end up asking whether general ‘public engagement’ exercises should not really be replaced by things that are much more specific, and to do with targeted groups.

Step 2 – Only allow certain framings

Still from Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) rights Warner Bros. Pictures.

Evil guidance: Make sure you decide ahead of time what positions are legitimate, and which illegitimate, so that you can identify the bad eggs. If people start talking in ways that you do not understand, or which sound a bit threatening to you, just make sure they are pre-assigned as ‘not open for discussion’.

While it is obvious that engagement exercises can’t be completely open-ended, it is important not to eliminate what for some organisers might be unpredictable significance’s that publics bring to the table. More important is the need to listen and perhaps readjust one’s own understanding of the event or exercise, in light of such responses. If an event is organised in such a way that it is impossible for alternative perspectives to be shared, or in ways that make them easy to marginalise, then it hasn’t really been a public engagement exercise, but something more like propaganda. If in the planning of the exercise organisers are too focused on ‘making it a success’, they might take measures to avoid people ‘rocking the boat’ etc. but if taken too far then again this will end up missing the engagement mark. Organisers need to be committed to the possibility that the whole thing might fall apart, because that collapse is all part of doing engagement well.

Step 3 – It’s the ignorance, stupid!

Still from Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980) rights Lucasfilm.

Evil guidance: The main reason to do public engagement is because any problems the public has with ‘the science’ is due to fear, and that fear has been caused by ignorance. If they only understood more, they would adopt the correct view.

Broadly conceived as the deficit model, this is absolutely detrimental to any valuable form of public engagement. It is a point about public engagement work that people in the synbio space have no doubt heard made on many occasions, but I include it here again for completeness (it also seems to require repeating quite a bit). Public engagement pursued on these terms is just about people who already agree on a topic telling each other that they agree. It is not really engagement at all. Rather, as Marris emphasises, we should not shy away from opportunities to draw on people with very different views, and within settings that are far from easily managed. 

Step 4 – Don’t be a Negative Nelly or a Critical Thinking Chris!

Still from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) rights Warner Bros.

Evil guidance: Look, people like science because it blows their mind. That’s the main thing. So let’s just focus on these aspects! Let’s focus on how science can be so artful, and how artful science can be. No need to complicate the picture! Moreover, anyone who does seem to have a slightly tricky question, or an issue that is causing them concern, that person is probably an undesirable, or part of the anti-science brigade. OR they don’t really understand what science is all about. So go forth my science communicators, with your springiest of steps and smiliest of smiles, and charm them into line.

Critical thinking can sometimes involve criticism, but often does not. And creating space for critical thinking is one of the most important things a public engagement exercise can accomplish. If organisers are feeling the need to make sunshine and rainbows central, they should ask themselves why. If organisers find they can’t enjoy and explore criticism, again they should ask themselves why. Perhaps there is something in their own perspective that they are insecure about, which could be fruitfully explored in the engagement.

That’s all from us this time, as ever we’d enjoy comments and criticisms in the below.

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What about the frogs?: Reflections on ‘Community and Identity in the Techno-Sciences’ workshop

Our post this month comes from Chris Mellingwood, a PhD student affiliated with and contributing to the Engineering Life project. You can contact Chris on c.r.mellingwood [at]

The sight of un-melted dirty snow on an urban street may not seem that interesting.  More importantly, “what the hell has this to do with frogs?!” I hear you say. Well, I want to suggest that frogs and snow are much alike, with an important difference that I’ll come to later. The reason frogs come in at all is thanks to a paper included in a STS workshop hosted in Austria on ‘Communities and Identities in Contemporary Techno-Sciences’. The title of my paper was ‘Experimental automation: Amphibious practices in UK bioscience’, and amphibious practices are one way that I have conceptualised observations made over a number of years in UK academic biosciences labs, more specifically, labs trying to fully automate parts of their experimental systems. Although I have observed strikingly different contexts for laboratory automation in UK academia, one similarity across all sites has been the presence of researchers who are comfortable within both ‘wet’ biological labs and ‘dry’ computer science labs – they are amphibians. Frogs.

So, walking down this sunny Vienna street on my way to the workshop I noticed the soot-covered snow drift, one which was noticeable thanks to its being out of place, and thought about my frogs, about how they fit with their place, and about how both snow and amphibians each have a duality. Snow is both solid and liquid, a frog requires both wet and dry habitat to survive. The word amphibian derives from the Latin-Greek ‘amphibios’ which translates literally as ‘living a double life’.  The double life of snow, you could say is constant transition from solid to liquid, from ice to water and eventually as hydrogen and oxygen evaporating in to the atmosphere. And here’s the important difference between frogs and snow, a frog must maintain the duality of wet and dry, amphibians are simultaneously land and water species, they do not switch or transform at the point of leaving or entering one domain or another. Frogs do not have the same transience as the patch of snow I snapped on my way to the workshop.

The conference, however, was stock-full of perspectives on the transient, fragile and unstable dimensions of both community and identity. For example, in contemporary sciences fixed-term contracts and finite funding cycles result in constant movement of people between projects and locations; community in this sense is always in flux. Similarly, and related to such multiple belongings across different communities, identity was conceptualised as being continually re-enacted. A number of presentations highlighted the identity-work that goes on as individuals identify- with one group or another. A clear example of this kind of identity-work, from my own PhD research, is the way that the label of ‘synthetic biologist’ is taken on, ignored, or outright rejected by laboratory users who seem to be using very similar tools in the laboratory, but have differing aims, expectations and affiliations.

The key point for me here is the tension between constant transition and the need to hold any research object still to undertake meaningful analysis. The labels attached to particular disciplines, be that systems biology, synthetic biology, or biodesign are but one example of these perpetual transitions. Seen cynically, as a number of workshop participants noted, affiliations with one label or another can come down to strategic decision-making about how best to secure the next round of funding. This may be the case for prospective PIs during grant writing processes but, for the postdocs in my cases at least, there was something more fundamental about why they took on certain identities or threw their hat in with certain groups.

For this small but important group of frogs across my research sites, disciplinary labelling did not seem to feature in their self-conceptualisations; they often articulated multiple belongings – as, say, both computer science programmers and ‘green fingered’ wet lab biologists – but these identities were intertwined with individual autobiographical narratives that reflected the multiple, and sometimes contradictory trajectories that bring people in to careers. In the same way I am holding the snow in a fixed-state in my picture however, informants in my cases also had to hold their own lives still to recount and explain how they seemed to have found belonging across the multiple worlds of ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ lab science.

This brings us back to an important theme coming out of the conference for me, tensions between stability and dissolution. What can be seen, for example, when this shrinking pile of snow catches the eye of a passer-by? Is it a tangible sign that winter is now giving way to spring? Or will a Viennese local be transported back those few short days to a city blanketed in glistening white? As for me, an outsider in several ways the left-over snow was anachronistic, out of time and place, entirely dissonant from the previous hour’s experience, taking in Vienna’s stunning architecture under crystal blue skies. In short, the snow pile represents a multitude of possible pasts, always to some degree unknown because what people see and feel when standing on this corner, looking at this pile of soot and ice depends largely on their connection to this place at this particular time.

From unknowable pasts to seemingly predictable futures then. Do we ‘know’ that the ice will soon turn to water, solid to liquid, evaporating in to the atmosphere and finally leaving no trace of the rapid changes in season that have been and gone? Perhaps, but the traces of those changes will be left behind in each individual’s experience, some fleeting – like my own – others inherently stickier as those experiences are reflected back by others also sharing that time and place. This, it seems, is the power of community, to act as a repository of collective experience making, firmly connected to a shared space (physical or virtual), and often anchored to a particular period of time. Now that I have described them to you, will the amphibious researcher become all the more visible? Or will certain sets of skills always be appreciated at their parts rather than their whole?

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Pablo Schyfter article, ‘A nature with their nature’, in LA+ issue on simulation

This month Dr Pablo Schyfter has featured in LA+ (Landscape Architecture Plus). You can find the full issue and Dr Schyfter’s article here.

For those without access to this journal, we upload the final draft here.

Schyfter, 2016, A nature with their nature

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Creation, Care and Complicity: exploring synthetic biology with the Golem

By Deborah Scott

This post is a continuation of thoughts prompted by the Shuffle Festival. Other scholars more systematically consider the role of fiction and legends in how societies understand and seek to influence science and technology. If, like me, you aren’t very familiar with this literature, maybe this blog post will serve as an inspiration to explore further (I, for one, have ordered delightfully promising library books…It’s a start). If you are trained in this area, by all means, please school me.

In my previous post, I argued that Jurassic Park – for all its awesomeness – is no longer operating as a useful narrative to open up conversation around areas of science and technology such as synthetic biology. Instead, it serves as a short-cut to certain standpoints in what are becoming well-worn debates on novelty, control, and trust. Anyone who has been part of public discussions on the life sciences will probably agree that the story of Frankenstein has come to play a similar role. So then, what stories can we use to orient our conversations as we consider emergent areas such as synthetic biology.

First, let’s step back and consider what we are asking of fiction. Science fiction is often asked to play an anticipatory role – what will be the next cutting edge science, and what will be its unintended impacts. In this mode, we ask sci-fi authors to crouch on the hood of The Steamroller of Science, casting their light onto the near future, alerting the driver to potholes, keeping us all on The Road to Progress. And bear in mind, this is a steamroller we are talking about; it’s gotta be a dang big pothole to require a route diversion. (The poor sci-fi author. A constant crick in the neck, a glaring headache from peering into the obscured landscape ahead. Is that a cliff’s edge? Will it mean an uptick in sales, or accusations of fear-mongering? Both?)

Instead, I’d rather think of storytelling as helping us envision the journeys we might go on, with different routes, each with its own potential perils and possibilities, leading to a multiplicity of destinations. Stories needn’t be about the current cutting edge to speak to contemporary concerns. Older stories remind us of past fears and dreams, of how our cultures previously navigated compromises and complicities along the way. Should we stick to that route? Have our desired destinations changed?

A classic golem.

A classic golem.

With this in mind, what stories can provide a substrate for enriching conversations around synthetic biology and its governance? Allow me to offer one: the enigmatic figure of the Golem. There are many tales of golems, mostly based in the traditions of Jewish mysticism. A holy man with a few helpers (also holy men) shape an image of a large man out of clay, and through the proper recitation of the proper words, imbue it with power, with energy, with something like a life force. Often this is done by placing the Hebrew word for truth on its forehead, or by placing a scroll under its tongue. The Golem is almost always mute, strong, more or less amoral. Often it is obedient, although this literal obedience sometimes causes trouble; sometimes its desires grow apart from those of its creator and this causes trouble; sometimes it does exactly what is asked of it and there is no trouble at all. The Golem’s creator can stop it, by erasing a letter from its forehead and changing the word to “death,” or by removing the scroll. In some tales, the rabbi is crushed by the collapsing Golem’s body, other times it is no big deal.

Now, you may well be thinking: dude, 20 years late. Okay, yes, Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch used the Golem to describe science and technology in their very popular series on understanding controversy and contestation. They chose this figure in order to strip science of enchantment, rooting it firmly as a human endeavour: “Golem Science is not to be blamed for its mistakes; they are our mistakes. A golem cannot be blamed if it is doing its best. But we must not expect too much. A golem, powerful though it is, is the creature of our art and our craft.”


The Shuffle Golem, led by Ionat Zurr & Oron Catts

But Collins & Pinch’s Golem series doesn’t actively engage much with this central metaphor. So, if you’ll allow me, I will follow the lead of others and apply this figure to synthetic biology, and see where it might take us. There are a number of seemingly neat parallels between the figure of the Golem and the figure of synthetic biology as it is coming into being:

A Vision of Control – At the Shuffle festival “Golem” installation, bioartists Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr talked about the Golem as a figure that can be stopped if the creator so chooses, speaking against the popular narrative of inexorable, undirectable scientific progress. And yet, from a slightly different angle, we could see synthetic biologists’ attempts to create “kill switches” in micro-organisms, “reverse” gene drives, and other approaches to build-in safety controls as mirrors of the word on the Golem’s forehead, the scroll under its tongue.

Motivations – Golems may be created simply to see if they are possible, but most stories focus on golems created for protection. The Golem of Prague protects its Jewish community from being framed for ritual murder. Synthetic biology is being asked to do many things, including to protect us – from the Zika virus, from the end of peak oil, from hunger and sickness and want.

The Material of the Mundane – Jurassic Park opens in a jungle, where unnamed labourers unearth a chunk of amber with That Mosquito. The creators of the Golem shape him from the humble mud of their city’s river. Some argue that practices of bioprospecting are shifting from exploring areas far from scientific labs to staying at home, using advanced sequencing technologies to mine existing collections and even the back garden.

As one philosopher has pointed out, these are not perfect parallels. But hey, if they were, we’d apply the morals of the story to the practices of the technoscience and be done with it. This is not storytelling to shine a light on the path ahead; this is storytelling to help us think through what paths we might choose to forge. And I find the very multiplicity of golem tales as enriching these discussions. Whereas Jurassic Park 2, 3, and 4 largely repeat themselves, golem tales don’t have the same plots, the same moral lessons. How do we weigh the varied stories of control – between the tales where all works as planned, where all goes terribly wrong, and where all works as planned and yet there are still unintended consequences? Even when the Golem’s creators act with the noblest of intentions, golem tales are often warnings of the dangers of hubris. What if, instead of a small group of holy men devising a solution, the community had been asked what should be done? And if they requested a golem, how might the plot shift if a broader community was involved in its creation and oversight? Does using more mundane material from the scientists’ world affect how they relate to their work? Could it lead to a more intimate connection? What kinds of relations and responsibilities to their work do scientists and corporations have? Should this change when their work involves life?

Sure, Jurassic Park could be used to ask such questions, but at this point it has become a stand-in for pat moral lessons rather than opening up debate. The many tales of the Golem, both old and new, provide a less settled context for engaging with new life sciences. So let’s tell each other tales of golems, of muddy banks and dusty attics, of protectors and vigilantes, of care and complicity. Let’s tell these stories not simply to anticipate what synthetic biology will do for or to us, but to explore. What kinds of creations do we want, and what shapes those desires? What possible permutations of community could exist to look after such creations? Who are the creators we want to be?


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