The Social and Conceptual Structure of Synthetic Biology and its Ethical Discourse

Brandon Sepulvado, Jacob Jett, J. Stephen Downie


In this presentation, we investigate the social and conceptual structure of the synthetic biology field. As a distinct field of research and practice, synthetic biology has only recently emerged from broader fields of biology, chemistry, and medicine. In essence, synthetic biology reuses or repurposes existing biological processes to aid in the novel generation of biological products (e.g., E. coli-based optical sensors, drug production and access, synthetic fuels, etc.). Synthetic biology is a field that has consequences for almost all parts of society. From medicine to agriculture to transportation, synthetic biologists are repurposing organisms like E. coli and various yeasts, to become the heart of a biological-based chemical industry. Yet, the technological advances that accompany this nascent field also implicate myriad ethical concerns. These issues have impacted not only the social organization of synthetic biology but also public policies that empower governing bodies to take and maintain oversight of research and industry practices. Just as synthetic biology’s emergence has only been recent, so to has the evolution of conversations concerning the ethical ramifications of the systematic design of “biological systems.” This work is part of the recently started NSF-funded Synthetic Biology Knowledge System (SBKS) project which is developing data driven information and computational tools to assist synthetic biologists in the creation of new synthetic biological circuits. One goal of the SBKS project is to automatically inform synthetic biologists about relevant ethical issues from the literature as they build these circuits. As the initial effort towards realizing our goal, we constructed a corpus 0f 15,152 articles from the Web of Science that we analyzed in order to establish a basic foundation of the ethics discourse as it stands in the literature. Through our analyses, we delineated field boundaries using a two-pronged approach. First, we consulted existing bibliometric studies of synthetic biology in order to define an initial set of relevant keywords for which we searched in text fields for each publication. Second, we consulted synthetic biologists in order to determine if any keywords were omitted or if any erroneous keywords were included. Basic bibliometric descriptives uncover an exponential growth in the literature and the social structure supporting this rise, which suggests a form of organization similar to an invisible college. One key result is that there is a lag between the social and cultural dynamics in synthetic biology as an entire field and in discourse on ethics within the field. For roughly ten years, little attention was given to ethical reflection, and then the rate of publication and the involvement of authors closely mimicked the initial growth of synthetic biology more generally. A detailed investigation of the co-authorship, inter-organizational, and geographic co-occurrence networks provides further insight into the social organization driving the observed trends in the synthetic biology literature.

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