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Recursive Convergence

BMBF Forschungsverbund "Verkörperte Information"

FU Freie Universitaet Berlin (Institue of Philosophy) and KHM Academy of Media Arts Cologne (Media Science Department)

Recursive Convergence - Design Techniques and Practices in Synthetic Biology

Dr. Adrian Mackenzie, ESRC Centre for Economic and Social Aspects of Genomics, Institute for Advanced Studies, Lancaster University (guest researcher)

Research Background

Over the last five years, synthetic biology or 'synbio' has been emerging with high media visibility at the intersection of life sciences and information technology. Synbio is regarded as the epitome of bio-info convergence. Although the boundaries of the field are still very much in flux, the techniques and processes it is using to reconfigure microbial lifeforms to deliver cheap biofuels or accelerate drug production are heavily influenced by ICT and software engineering processes. Design has taken on significantly new resonances in the field of synthetic biology. Synbio draws heavily on software design concepts such as modularity, platforms, registries, libraries, standards and re-factoring. It invokes these approaches in because they promise to do for biotechnology something similar to what ICTs and the internet did for communication media or office work in 1980s and 1990s. At the same time, the everyday practices of synbio are saturated by information and network practices of collaboration and participation (wikis, blogs). They rely also on web-based commercial services (such as DNA synthesis, sequences database and searching tools) as well as extensive computer modelling. Hence 'synbio' could be said to demonstrate 'recursive convergence': it models itself on ICTs, and uses ICTs to carry out its work. The participation of many computer scientists in the field of synthetic biology attests to this convergence.


The project will examine the role that techniques, infrastructures, models and protocols play in 'recursive convergence' of synthetic biology. It will also explore the frictions and dynamics that arise when design and modelling processes drawn from engineering rapidly transcribed onto another, the life sciences. The project will focus on modes of recursive convergence in synbio, and how they affect sensations of speed and value associated with it. In dialogue with the growing sociological literature on life sciences, biotechnology, and biomedicine, the project will explore: how do ideas of design and design practice begin to mutate in synbio? Based on a small case study of two different synbio projects, this project will sketch a preliminary answer to that question.

The kernel of the research concerns modes of participation in synbio, and how they are inflected by issues of speed and value. On the one hand, in certain domains of synbio, we find modes of collaboration and cooperation now well-established in free and open software development, and reminiscent of Mertonian ideals of science. On the other hand, closely adjacent, we find design practices, modelling techniques, intellectual property manoeuvres, and investment mechanisms typical of commercial biotechnology industry. When collaboration and commercialization intersect, issues of participation, speed and value are pre-eminent. Who can participate and under what conditions, how fast can the field develop, and what commercial, political, or social values embody themselves in synbio: these issues fuel the rapid succession of announcements, offering of services, investments and intellectual property claims associated with synthetic biology. The research will also reflect theoretically on the conditions under which sociological and critical humanities research can enter into debates around participation, speed and competition in synthetic biology?


Dr. Adrian Mackenzie
ESRC Centre for Economic and Social Aspects of Genomics
Institute for Advanced Studies
County South
Lancaster University
UK-Lancaster LA1 4YD

Tel: ++44 (0)1524 510848
Fax: ++44 (0) 1524 510856
Email: a.mackenzie[at]lancaster.ac.uk