1. ESRC Genomics Network (archive)
  2. Gengage
  3. The Human Genre Project

Innogen · Research

The Production and Commodification of Knowledge in Synthetic Biology

Jane Calvert

Start date


Affiliated staff

Peter Robbins


Link to

Funded by

ESRC Innogen Centre


Synthetic biology is an emerging field which involves constructing biological organisms from 'scratch'. For this reason, it raises many social, regulatory, ethical and epistemic concerns.

Synthetic biology covers a broad and disparate set of research activities, including the construction of interchangeable biological parts and devices (often called 'BioBricks'), work at the level of whole genomes (including the synthesis of viral genomes, and the reduction of existing bacterial genomes), and the attempt to create 'protocells' from simple components (see O'Malley et al. 2008).

An important aspect of synthetic biology is that it involves the application of engineering principles to biological systems.

This brings to the fore the different epistemic value schemes of biologists and engineers, and raises interesting issues about the extent to which biological systems can be treated as if they are comprised of discrete modular components (which coincidentally fit well with appropriation regimes, including open source).


This project aims to answer the following research questions:

  • What is the relationship between systems and synthetic biology (should we think of this relationship in terms of ‘science’ and ‘technology’)?
  • What is the role of engineering in synthetic biology? Do engineers and biologists have different aspirations and approaches? Do they treat biological complexity differently?
  • What is the relationship between the economic/regulatory and the epistemic in synthetic biology (e.g. open source and modularity)?
  • Will synthetic biology challenge our current conceptions of what is ‘natural’?
  • Could we see ‘life’ being (re)shaped so it fits better with manufacturing practices and property regimes?


Membership of a UK synthetic biology network, interviews with leading systems biologists, attendance at conferences and workshops.


Frow, E and Calvert, J (2013) '"Can simple biological systems be built from standardized interchangeable parts?" negotiating biology and engineering in a synthetic biology competition' Engineering Studies 5 (1): 42-58

Calvert, J (2012) 'Ownership and sharing in synthetic biology: a 'diverse ecology' of the open and the proprietary?' BioSocieties 7 (2): 169-187

Wiek, A, Guston, D, Frow, E and Calvert, J (2012) 'Sustainability and anticipatory governance in synthetic biology' International Journal of Social Ecology and Sustainable Development 3 (2): 25-38

Calvert, J (2010) 'Synthetic biology: constructing nature?' Sociological Review 58 (s1): 95-112

Calvert, J and Martin, P (2009) 'The role of social scientists in synthetic biology' EMBO Reports 10(3): 201-204

Calvert, J (2008) 'The commodification of emergence: systems biology, synthetic biology and intellectual property' BioSocieties 3(4): 385-400

O'Malley, M, Powell, A, Davies, J and Calvert, J (2008) 'Knowledge-making distinctions in synthetic biology' BioEssays 30(1): 57–65