Biological Knowledge through Modeling and Engineering: Epistemological and Social Aspects of Synthetic Biology (SynBioMode)

Funded by the Synthetic Biology Research Programme of Academy of Finland (2013–2017)

Synthetic biology is the latest revolution in the life sciences, with enormous potential for novel technologies. It promises substantial benefits such as sustainable energy and food production. However, since it aims at design and fabrication of novel biological parts, devices and systems, it also harbors anxiety and even fears. It is therefore imperative that the epistemological and methodological aspects as well as ELSA (ethical, legal, societal) considerations of synthetic biology are assessed at early stages of its development. The project will develop a societally and theoretically relevant account of the contemporary research practices in synthetic biology.

The general hypothesis of SynBioMode is that the image of synthetic biology as an application-oriented field of engineering tends to overlook the interdisciplinary and collaborative dynamics of synthetic biology, as well as its basic-science oriented dimension. We will study the construction and scientific uses of bio-circuits, the relationship between modeling and experimenting, and the public understanding of and engagement in synthetic biology through a combination of empirical studies and theoretical analyses. The empirical studies will be performed in collaboration with leading synthetic/systems biology laboratories in Finland and abroad. The empirical part consists of participant observation, thematic interviews, and informal discussions with scientists in their labs.

SynBioMode develops theoretical and practical insights and resources for an improved understanding of the cognitive and practical profile of synthetic biology. It offers synthetic biologists conceptual resources for avoiding pitfalls in interdisciplinary research. It also aims at providing tools for communicating expertise to other scientists, policy makers, and societal actors. It fosters public understanding of and engagement in synthetic biology by providing a realistic understanding of its potential benefits and risks.