Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities

Guest lecture: Jane Calvert:"Can simple biological systems be built from standardized interchangeable parts? Negotiating biology and engineering in synthetic biology"

SVT invites to an open guest lecture entitled "Can simple biological systems be built from standardized interchangeable parts? Negotiating biology and engineering in synthetic biology"

Guest lecturer: Dr. Jane Calvert, INNOGEN, School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh.

The relationship between engineering and biology in synthetic biology is a subject of lively debate. Synthetic biology is sometimes described as an attempt to turn biology into an engineering discipline, and in other instances is presented as more of a ‘partnership’ between biology and engineering. Broadly speaking, the disciplines of biology and engineering involve different ways of knowing and doing, and can embody different values, assumptions and objectives. Tensions between these approaches are playing out in different settings as the field of synthetic biology attempts to establish itself. An interesting site for studying the negotiation between engineering and biology is the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, an annual undergraduate competition in which multidisciplinary student teams attempt to design and construct genetic circuits. iGEM has played an important role in launching the field of synthetic biology, and also serves as a test-bed for the engineering approach. Here I consider how a number of issues that iGEM teams must grapple with — including standardization, intellectual property, and design — raise challenges regarding the extent to which engineering principles can be imposed on biological entities. I also discuss the pedagogical, community building, and ‘human practices’ dimensions of iGEM in the context of the different cultures of engineering and biology. I end by asking whether iGEM is best seen as primarily an engineering or a biological approach, or something else altogether.