Life by design: Philosophical perspectives on synthetic biology
Université Paris 1-Panthéon-Sorbonne, France
a Corresponding author: firstname.lastname@example.org
“Biology is Technology”, this title of a book authored by bioengineer Rob Carlson captures the essence of synthetic biology. This novel research field is in the hands of engineers, who are in charge of redesigning life or designing new forms of life for specific purposes. In the aftermath of “the century of the gene” (Evelyn Fox Keller, Cambridge Mass, Harvard University Press, 2002) he comes the century of “life by design”. As the emergence of molecular biology allowed reading the code of life, it seems quite natural to rewrite it with the alphabet. “From reading to writing the genetic code”, this is how Craig Venter, a genetic engineer who designed the first bacteria with a synthetic genome in 2010, explains and legitimizes his research programme. It seems to be a logical inference based on a chronological sequence.
The prospect of designing organisms triggers the promise of manufacture of all sorts of organisms to meet societal demands or human desires and fantasies: From bacteria-workers to the creation of new forms of life or even…immortal life. Just as in nanotechnology, synthetic biology develops an “economy of promises”. However synthetic biology seems to go one step further. While nanotechnology has been advertised with the slogan “shaping the world atom by atom” in the 2000 US National NanoInitiative, synthetic biology opens up the more challenging perspective of designing organisms that will remake the world for us. Re-engineered yeasts or bacteria will serve as pharmaceutical plants producing drugs. Synthetic algae will provide renewable fuel for our daily consumption of energy. Synthetic bacteria will decontaminate the soils polluted by chemicals and nuclear waste.
This paper outlines a number of distinctive features of this emerging field in the constellation of bionanotechnologies. It then insists on the variety of research agendas and strategies gathered under the umbrella “synthetic biology”. While redesigning life is the central goal, synthetic biologists do not develop a uniform view of living organisms.
© Owned by the authors, published by EDP Sciences, 2015
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.