Case Studies

Automation

Researchers: Emma Frow and Chris Wood

Over the past decade, significant effort has been invested in developing tools to facilitate automation in design, construction, and testing of genetic constructs. How are synthetic biology laboratories being (re)configured in response to such developments? How do the new possibilities afforded by automation (including, for example, speed and scale-up) change the nature of what an ‘experiment’ is, what kinds of questions might productively be asked, and what counts as a valuable contribution to the practice of synthetic biology?

Outer space

Researcher: Deborah Scott

Space synthetic biology aims to apply the tools and approaches of synthetic biology to outer space science and exploration. As this new field interacts with the legal and political contexts of outer space, we ask: what ways of being in and relating with outer space could result from the use of synthetic biology tools? What kinds of institutions, what sorts of legal structures, and what goals for a presence in outer space are embedded in these current and proposed research projects? And how might being a part of the physical, political, and social spaces created by old and new actors, from NASA to SpaceX, influence synthetic biology?

Gender

Researcher: Pablo Schyfter

Engineering, like science, has been and continues to be an area of work characterised by masculinisation. That is, engineering and science have been and are still routinely viewed as practices congruent with men and masculinity and accordingly incongruous with women and femininity. One way in which this manifests itself centres on subjectivities. 'The engineer' and 'the scientist' are (broadly speaking) masculine subjectivities. As synthetic biology comes into being, so too does the subjectivity of 'the synthetic biologist.' What form will that subjectivity take? Will the field's elevation and emulation of traditional engineering result in a traditionally masculinised subjectivity, or is there an opportunity to craft something new? Can synthetic biology deliver not simply a new form of engineering, but a better, more equal form of engineering? 

CRISPR and gene drives

Researchers: Deborah Scott and Emma Frow 

Since we started studying synthetic biology, some of the most significant advances in genome engineering have come from outside the relatively small community of self-described 'synthetic biologists'. A case in point: CRISPR gene editing technology. CRISPR has burst onto the scene in the past 5 years and is opening up new possibilities for genome design and editing. For example, technologies like gene drives, first proposed in the 1960s, are seeing proof-of-concept demonstrations in laboratories thanks to CRISPR. In this work we explore the challenges for governance raised by the widespread adoption of CRISPR across a variety of academic, medical, and agricultural domains. With partners in the US, we are also working to foster early, interdisciplinary discussions around the governance of gene drive technologies.

Plants

Researcher: Dominic Berry

Over the course of the twentieth century the plant sciences underwent a transformation, firstly as a key site for the foundation of genetics, later through the molecularization of the biosciences, alongside changes in technique (particularly in microscopy), and most recently incorporating (or responding to) synthetic biology. Research involving extended periods of laboratory observation and interviews with plant synthetic biologists and plant scientists more generally aims to uncover what synthetic biologists are doing to plants, and what plants are doing to synthetic biology.

Yeast

Researchers: Jane Calvert and Erika Szymanski

Yeast, and Saccharomyces cerevisiae in particular, is one of our oldest companion species because of its essential contributions to wine, bread, beer, and myriad other fermented foods. Yeast is also crucial to industrial biotechnology and an important model organism in biological research. As such, S. cerevisiae has become the subject of the first attempt to redesign and synthesize a complete eukaryotic genome. We are examining this international ‘Sc2.0’ project through interviews and lab ethnography as it challenges boundaries in synthetic biology: designing the yeast genome to unpredictably “evolve on demand” (is this still design?), erasing the S. cerevisiae species barcode and incorporating sequences from other organisms (is this still S. cerevisiae?), promising applications in biofuels and better beer while focusing on scientific understanding, and pledging openness while engaging industry partners.

See also Research Themes

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