Synthetic Biology: Engineering Life in the Test Tube

Synthetic Biology: Engineering Life in the Test Tube

Luis Campos

Luis Campos was engaged in writing a history of the newly emerging field of synthetic biology, an epistemologically provocative disciplinary mixture of engineering, computer science, molecular biology, and artificial life that seeks to redesign living systems to accomplish human-desired functions, and to do so in large measure by the creation of a registry of standardized biological parts. Hopes for a “plug-and-play” biology run high, with aims for an “open source” ethos in matters of intellectual property, as synthetic biologists seek to engineer life in ways that are recognizable to engineers as engineering, rather than happenstance tinkering (which is arguably said to be the case with “so-called” genetic engineering).

Having attended the first international conference, “Synthetic Biology 1.0,” at MIT in June 2004, Luis Campos actively followed the field as it has steadily grown and internationalized over the last several years. His project concerned both the longer “prehistory” of synthetic biology—from the coining of the phrase in 1912 through widespread references to genetic engineering as a form of “synthetic biology” in the 1970s—as well as the field’s current institutional and cultural dynamics. Accordingly, his research was a hybrid of scholarly work in the library, tracking down older historical sources, combined with ethnographic fieldwork and presentations and interactions at scientific meetings.

In the first part of the project, concerning the prehistory of synthetic biology, Luis Campos sought to relate the claims and aims of this newest of fields to deeper, longer-lasting themes in the history of biology in the early twentieth century, using synthesis as an experimental tool (J. Butler Burke); the idea of control as proof of understanding (Jacques Loeb); and the application of principles of design and modularity to biological phenomena with the advent of the first instance of what was explicitly referred to as “genetic engineering” (Albert F. Blakeslee).

In the second part of the project, he sought to relate the recent emergence of synthetic biology to its institutional and disciplinary forebears, and to chart the evolution of the new field as it has appeared in scientific publications, popular science news articles, public talks, and conferences and workshops from 2002 to 2011, including observations from his own participation in these events. Campos paid particular attention here to the development and characterization of the field through some of its central players at MIT, the putative birthplace of the new field and arguably still its seat of power.

In the third part of the project, Luis Campos sought to characterize and trace the development of some of the various competing “schools of thought” of synthetic biology that have emerged, particularly those accompanying the larger internationalization of the field. This included observing the formation of a distinctively “European” interpretation of synthetic biology—an interpretation that did not exist even a year ago. Wary of any mere “relabeling,” many European scientists instead hope to interpret synthetic biology as a means to improve existing interfaces between disciplines and to advance basic scientific understandings of nature itself—and not just to aim at reconstructing nature.

These series of efforts at MIT, elsewhere in the United States, and in Europe, are fascinating examples of “social” engineering actively accompanying every effort at biological engineering. Luis Campos' research aimed to investigate some of these broader cultural dimensions of synthetic biology—both within particular communities and across communities—in order to shed light on the emergence of not only a new scientific field, but of the remarkable ways in which the natural, engineered, and social orders are being coproduced.