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Engineering life: ideas, practices and promises

Final Report Summary - ENLIFE (Engineering life: ideas, practices and promises)

The ENLIFE project was a social scientific study of the field of synthetic biology, driven by two objectives: to investigate the movement of ideas, practices, policies and promises from engineering into the life sciences; and to examine the ways in which social scientists have been mobilised as part of this endeavour. The project was divided into three research strands: ideas, practices, and policies and promises.

The ideas strand analysed the extent to which ideas from engineering are permeating biology. It showed that the engineering agenda has become less explicit in synthetic biology in recent years, but aspirations to control and rationalise biological systems are still strong. A conceptual development we made in this strand was to build new connections between science and technology studies and the history and philosophy of science, by demonstrating the importance of engineering to both fields.

The practices strand investigated how engineering is influencing research practices in the life sciences. Automation was a key focus, since laboratory practices in synthetic biology are being rethought with the introduction of robotics. The practices strand also involved work on the synthetic yeast project, the first attempt to build a complete eukaryotic genome from scratch. Our work demonstrated the challenges of treating yeast as an engineerable ‘chassis’.

Work in the policies and promises strand included analysis of the governance of synthetic biology in the UK, the US and Asia, with particular attention to the Convention on Biological Diversity. This strand also included research on gene editing and gene drives – controversial tools that are becoming important in the biological community. We also engaged directly with the notion of ‘Responsible Research and Innovation’ and explored agonism as an alternative to deliberative democracy in governing emerging technoscience.

We ran four experimental interdisciplinary workshops, bringing together people from different perspectives with the aim of producing new knowledge across disciplinary divides. The first, ‘Doing Engineering’, used images and live interviews to explore what it means to practice engineering. In the second workshop, ‘Mapping Synthetic Biology Workflows’, synthetic biologists and social scientists spent a day mapping and ‘debugging’ workflows that are being developed across synthetic biology laboratories. The third workshop, ‘Genetic Resources in the Age of the Nagoya Protocol and Gene/Genome synthesis’ considered the implications of gene synthesis for existing access and benefit sharing agreements. Our fourth workshop, ‘History of DNA synthesis and the organism: biology, chemistry, and engineering’, explored the history and development of synthetic DNA. Our largest event was a two-day mini-conference ‘The end of synthetic biology? What futures?’ The event was framed as a provocation to encourage reflection on the past, present and future of synthetic biology. We drew on commissioned contributions from a biological artist, a critical designer and a science fiction writer.

Interdisciplinarity was central to the ENLIFE project. The expertise of the project team included science and technology studies, history, philosophy, geography, law and science communication. But the interdisciplinary reach of the project was far broader, because we engaged with scientists and engineers throughout. However, because we aspired to be reflexive and critical, it was crucially important that the Engineering Life project was not reliant on funding from science and engineering, but had the freedom to develop autonomously, with its own agenda, directives and staff. The ERC grant allowed us to engage closely with synthetic biology whilst retaining academic independence.