Template:Team:UC Berkeley/Notebook/MT anthropological narrative

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Summary and Narrative


This year’s UC Berkeley iGEM team project includes a human practices component. It is the second Berkeley team to include one, and the 2007 UC Berkeley iGEM team was the first of any team to address human practices issues (read Kristin Fuller’s notebook here). In relation to research being conducted under the banner of synthetic biology, human practices, as defined by the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC), proposes to:

-PROBLEMATIZE critical domains of human life, such as energy, health, security, and environment.

-RAISE THE QUESTION of the good life (eudaimonia) in contemporary forms.

-CALL FOR COLLABORATION in the recognition of shared problems, stakes, challenges, and evolving norms. [1]

This year’s HP component differs from last year’s in its focus not on a delineated controversial topic but instead on the attempt to facilitate these three proposed goals within multiple problem spaces and venues.

My work focused on these three goals through the following modes of inquiry: (1) situating research done in the lab within a larger cultural context and distinguishing the assumptions on which proposed research and research organization was founded (e.g.: how are standards made, who has the power to change them, and how are habits changed to herald them in?); (2) complicating the terms which give meaning to work in the lab and to other projects under the synthetic biology header in the United States (e.g.: what conditions are established to designate that a rhetorically separated “public” is benefiting from synthetic biology research?); and (3) aiding in the search for an appropriate and effective forum for collaboration between the many actors and stakeholders of synthetic biology (e.g.: seeking a space where discussion about synthetic biology is multi-facetted and unfettered by power structures). To achieve these goals, I became a participant observer of research done in the iGEM lab and maintained a blog; maintained an on-line lab notebook; conducted filmed interviews of many actors of the research and organization; and generated and edited content for, as well as helped conceptually design, the preliminary version of the website Ars Synthetica with the purpose of creating an engaging space of education, collaboration, and discussion between those who have an interest in synthetic biology.


Context: Human Practices and its connection to the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition, and to synthetic biology in general, are situated within the organization of SynBERC. In the early 2000s, UC Berkeley chemical engineer Jay Keasling began courting the National Science Foundation to get funding for work he was doing and planning engineering biological systems. In 2006, the NSF actually granted the $16 million, to be spent over the span of 5 years, to Keasling and a loosely associated pool of scientists at academic institutions across the United States through its Engineering Research Center program—the result of which was the creation of SynBERC. One of the conditions the NSF required from the newly organized ERC was that it must have an “ethical component" to its research. In 2004, in the initial stages of applying for the funding, the NSF mandated that the newly developing field of science address pressing problems of biosafety, biosecurity, and preparedness—problems of how to regulate, through policy, possibilities for catastrophe—and that it have the capacity to be reflexive on its own practices, regulation, organization, and products. These conditions for funding spurred the creation of a fourth branch, or “thrust,” of the organization (along with Thrusts 1-Parts, 2-Devices, and 3-Chassis), coined Human Practices, which in the first proposal composed of a research director who would investigate how "science," as it exists in the labs of those performing synthetic biology, would impact "society," as it exists separate from lab practice.

This first model of human practices inquiry worked on the assumption that social, ethical, economic, and political questions are separate from the actual research being conducted, and Thrust 4 was placed downstream of scientific research—the "ethical component" of SynBERC became a bureaucratic rubber stamping of research being done after the fact. In Paul Rabinow and Gaymon Bennett's "Human Practices: Interfacing 3 Modes of Collaboration," the authors describe this sort of inquiry as Mode 2 inquiry: "facilitating relations between science and society." [2] This form of inquiry could not facilitate and perform the dynamic reflection on the actions of SynBERC for many reasons, all deriving from the problem that this was a proposal of a form of cooperation between social scientists, policy makers, activists, and natural scientists and not the collaboration between them. As such, when anthropologist Paul Rabinow became UC Berkeley's Human Practices Project Investigator in 2006, his condition for joining SynBERC was to have the power to collaborate: the inquiry being done by the social scientists and ethicists on his team should be held in equal status with the research of the other PIs and HP inquiry would be located upstream of scientific research. His view is that reflection on design, ethics, and production is ineffective downstream, and therefore it would require human practices inquiry present for all actors to reflect on these aspects of synthetic biology.

The international Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition predates SynBERC. First started by Randy Rettberg in 2003 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, iGEM began as the meeting of a small group of scientists from the university presenting projects to each other, all of which required the manipulation of DNA to produce. In 2004, it became an actual competition, with five teams (from the academic institutions of Boston University, Caltech, MIT, Princeton, and UT Austin) presenting projects including the Texas’ infamous “bio-film” application. The next year was its first as an international competition, and the establishment of standards for judging has become more and more concrete since then—although the qualifications for winning the Golden Brick have always centered on the publishing of parts on MIT’s parts Registry and the importance of open source sharing of the new technologies and applications of synthetic biology. Synthetic biology is often referred to as the “application of engineering principles to biological systems,” and iGEM’s usage of robotics competitions in the past as a model establishes the prominent role of the search for innovation in the competition.

iGEM and SynBERC are distinct entities, but overlap overwhelmingly in intellectual pursuit: many of SynBERC’s PIs (like Chris Anderson) get involved with iGEM, and SynBERC (and the developing field of synthetic biology itself) rely heavily on iGEM and the reaching scope of attempts at expanding tools and applications of the manipulation of DNA. As Anderson has said in an interview, there is a need for a revolutionary improvement of the tools available to manipulate DNA, something similar to the scale of effect of the development of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) on biology and biotech 18 years ago, in order for the “industrial revolution” of synthetic biology to take hold. [3]

UC Berkeley Human Practices 2008: What does it mean to be the human practices member of an iGEM team? It means walking the line between two distinct methods of thinking, perceiving, and problem solving—two paradigms of “approaching thought, action, and the world.” The human practices thrust has come to focus partly on the fact that doing synthetic biology (experimenting in it, designing projects related to it, situating findings within it, making decisions about what projects are important, etc.) is a human practice. These scientists and their work do not exist in a world separate from humanity and the cultural, political, economic, and ethical structures that shape it, because there is no such separation. Assumptions and ideologies control lab practice, organization, and regulation just as they do political entities, religious groups, and intellectual schools of thought. With such clarity, it is the task of the human practice research of synthetic biology to analyze and bring to light the truth claims regarding synthetic biology research and the conditions under which such claims are imbued with meaning. Whereas the methodology of human practices is focused on the act of inquiry and contextualization itself as an act of education, the scientific and engineering methodology with which I interfaced as a participant observer sought a conclusive deliverable. Reflection, as I was trained, is the act of opening discussion not narrowing it.

Expectations for the product of my inquiry were faintly defined at the beginning of my interim as the human practice researcher of the team. On my first day, the head scientific advisor for the team, Chris Anderson, asserted that my project not necessarily be cohesive with the iGEM project and that he sought merely for it to be “educational and useful.” By nature of being the product of the expectations of the members of Berkeley's iGEM team, those a part of the Berkeley human practices lab, and those of my own, my work became focused on the contextualization of the research happening in the iGEM lab: how does the research being done by these students relate to other projects being pursued under the banner of synthetic biology? In this way, my project and acts of inquiry could be labeled "successes," as my ultimate goal was a sort of similar building of foundational form and forum of reflection and discussion around synthetic biology. As stated in my lab notebook, my research had been focused on the discussion of rhetoric of eudaimonia (roughly translated from Aristotle as "happiness" or "flourishing"--what conditions qualify the "good life?") claimed by the different stakeholders involved with the biofuels research associated with the UC Berkeley campus. My experience and research with the iGEM team over the summer was, as predicted, quite a departure from my approach during the spring of 2008. First, and foremost, those with an invested interest in the product of my research increased manifold. Whereas my spring research had one methodology to use, that of human practices, being on the iGEM team influenced my goals toward being more "relevant" and "utilitarian."

This liminality of methodology was mediated through providing the role of facilitator, which was tremendous. The students themselves had extreme interest in contextualizing and discussing their research, although discussion would sometimes be hard as they became more entrenched in their particular tasks associated with creating the self-lysis, part assembling biological device. The ambiguity of my research goals (as my research was defined almost purely by method) was somewhat off-putting, and I felt the need to concretize my role in the lab. I found myself drawn to justification of my mode of "inquiry" through producing an approachable and manageable interface between what is happening in the lab, scientists' perceptions of the importance of the research in the lab, and my reflection on both. Essentially, the role of "chronicler" and "multi-media contributor" defined my role in a non-intrusive, framable way.

Foundational Technologies: Most interesting was being present to such a focus on foundational technologies in the lab. Synthetic biology is such a young field, and a field with such closely similar goals to other scientific and engineering disciplines. Although there are varying and inconclusive definitions of what defines synthetic biology, it is true that there are biology-manipulating methods that have a wide range of application and possibility for innovation within biology-associated fields. Clonebots, indeed, seems to be able to reach farther than the audience of "synthetic biologists," the simplest example being to the world of microbiologists. Its goal in application is, however, the innovation for the manipulation of DNA within the field of synthetic biology. Thus, the question relating to standardization remains the same: how does one establish tools in an emerging environment? The creation of streamlined processes walks the line of tension between creating something cost effective and more manageable, and the enabling qualities of those streamlined processes. As previously stated in my on-line lab notebook, I do not mean to point out only the intricacies and implementation of oversight related to safety and security issues within synthetic biology, but more simply and generally to the intricacies and implementation of oversight of which problems and which solutions are given precedence over others. This is a contextual question: what politics are involved and which "societal sufferings" are chosen to be remedied? Here is why concurrent reflection on research by many actors is imperative to understanding and responsibly creating "novel organisms."


The UC Berkeley College of Engineering blog for iGEM is the location for discussion and chronicling of controversial issues surrounding synthetic biology.

My on-line lab notebook is the location for less restrictive discussion of problematization of research done in the lab and reflection on readings, experiences, and conversations relating to the lab.

Ars Synthetica will be evolving over the next few months to include more content from other human practice members on the UC Berkeley campus, as well as building the necessary framework to implement design principles surrounding creating a space for discussion.

"How do you become a synthetic biologist?" and "A day in the life of an igemmer" are two interactive slideshows hoping to expand the limits of form of discussion.

This is the link to videos of interviews conducted over the summer, some which are yet to be integrated into the Ars Synthetica website.


[1] Rabinow, Paul and Gaymon Bennett, “Conceptual Addition: From SynBERC through Weber to the Three Modes and Human Practices,” Powerpoint Given in UCB Anthropology 112 Lecture, Fall 2007.

[2] Rabinow, Paul, and Gaymon Bennett, "Human Practices: Interfacing 3 Modes of Collaboration,” in The Prospect of Protocells: Social and Ethical Implications of Recreating Life, Bedau and Parke, eds. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008.

[3] Anderson, J. Chris, Personal Interview, 25 June 2008.

Thanks for visiting our wiki! The next link will take you to what is, at the publishing of this wiki, a preliminary version of the Ars Synthetica website.