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18/09/2014

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Tension between biology and engineering

Jane Calvert takes a sociological view

As a sociologist of science, I am interested in understanding science in its broader social, political and historical context. Synthetic biology is a fascinating field for sociologists because it brings technical and social issues together in a very interesting manner.

Because it is a new field, many different activities go on under the heading of ‘synthetic biology’ and there are disagreements over who is doing synthetic biology properly. From a sociological perspective these disputes are interesting, and they have led to tensions in the field. One of the most conceptually rich tensions is that between biology and engineering.

Biologists and engineers

Biologists and engineers have different aims. While biologists want to understand living systems better, engineers want to create new things. In the light of these differences, it is telling that synthetic biologists like to quote Richard Feynman: ‘What I cannot create I do not understand’. This quotation brings together the biologists’ desire for understanding with the engineers’ desire for creation, in asserting that creation will itself provide understanding.

So how does this fusion of biology and engineering play out? From an engineer’s perspective, the aim of synthetic biology is to design biological parts which are interchangeable and can be combined, like Lego bricks. It is also necessary for these parts to be standardised and predictable, like the threads on screws, so that they can be used in many different devices.

Synthetic biology makes use of many analogies from engineering. For example, the analogy of a ‘chassis’ is taken from mechanical engineering (it is used to refer to a cell into which biological parts can be inserted), and analogies are also drawn from electrical engineering in discussions of how DNA and proteins can behave like transistors and resistors. A question from a sociological perspective is how will these analogies affect the biological systems that are produced?

Attitudes to evolution

Biologists and engineers also have different attitudes to complexity and simplicity. This is summarised nicely by the synthetic biologist Tom Knight: ‘a biologist is delighted with complexity. The engineer’s response is: “How can I get rid of this?’”. Engineering-oriented synthetic biologists want to streamline their synthetic creations and get rid of the detritus of evolution. But can we actually eliminate the ‘messiness’ of biology? And what makes the biological substrate different from other substrates that we engineer? These are questions that synthetic biologists are pursuing in their research.

Some synthetic biologists would like to make living systems that do not evolve. This is because things that evolve are things that change, and they are not ideal components of predictable biological systems. What is particularly interesting here, is that if living systems do not have to evolve, biology could become a product of design choices, which could include social, political and economic concerns, such as security, and even aesthetics. This leads to questions about whether we will we come to see the creations of synthetic biology as part of the natural world, and whether synthetic biology could change our understanding of what is ‘natural’.

The new and the familiar

Perhaps this is somewhere we have been before. In 1828 the chemist Friedrich Wöhler was the first person to synthesize an organic compound – urea – from purely inorganic components. This sent shock waves through the scientific community of the time, because they thought that that there was something special and irreducible about living things. We are now completely familiar with the products of synthetic chemistry. Will we become equally familiar with the products of synthetic biology? It is questions such as these which make synthetic biology such an interesting topic for the sociology of science.

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Dr Jane Calvert
Dr Jane Calvert is an RCUK Academic Fellow at the ESRC Innogen Centre, Institute for the Study of Science, Technology and Innovation (ISSTI) at the University of Edinburgh
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