Synthetic genomics, or engineering biology at the level of whole genomes and whole organisms, is an emerging outgrowth of parts-based synthetic biology. This nascent subfield is also diverse and difficult to characterize. As social scientists investigating responsible research and innovation in synthetic genomics, we suggest that focusing on the organism is a fruitful approach to making sense of the diversity it encompasses. Here, we offer a heuristic in the form of a tagging system to organize projects by the roles the engineered organism is asked to perform. We suggest several reasons why this system is useful for understanding the current shape and future directions of the field, especially in light of the need to ask: how does engineering biology contribute to building a future of sustainable relationships with other creatures?
Responsible research and innovation meets multispecies studies: why RRI needs to be a more-than-human exercise.
Szymanski, E, Smith, R and Calvert J (2021) Responsible research and innovation meets multispecies studies: why RRI needs to be a more-than-human exercise. Journal of Responsible Innovation 8 (2): 261-266.
We offer an argument for why responsible research and innovation should be in conversation with multispecies studies. We suggest that RRI can learn from multispecies studies to expand definitions of stakeholders and responsibilities, thereby including other creatures in conversations and frameworks where they are currently missing. In addition, the RRI community might benefit from exploring conceptual overlaps between RRI and multispecies studies literatures. For example, concepts germane to RRI – notably, care and relationality – have been particularly well-developed with respect to how they oblige mutually responsive relationships. Consequently, connecting these two areas of theory and practice should nuance discussions about responsibility as an individual versus a collective endeavor and about the relationship between RRI and knowledge production.
Szymanski, E and Henricksen, J (2022) Reconfiguring the challenge of biological complexity as a resource for biodesign. mSphere DOI: https://doi.org/10.1128/msphere.00547-22
Biological complexity is widely seen as the central, intractable challenge of engineering biology. Yet this challenge has been constructed through the field’s dominant metaphors. Alternative ways of thinking—latent in progressive experimental approaches, but rarely articulated as such—could instead position complexity as engineering biology’s greatest resource. We outline how assumptions about engineered microorganisms have been built into the field, carried by entrenched metaphors, even as contemporary methods move beyond them. We suggest that alternative metaphors would better align engineering biology’s conceptual infrastructure with the field’s move away from conventionally engineering-inspired methods toward biology-centric ones. Innovating new conceptual frameworks would also enable better aligning scientific work with higher-level conversations about that work. Such innovation—thinking about how engineering microbes might be more like user-centered design than like programming a computer or building a car—could highlight complexity as a resource to leverage, not a problem to erase or negate.