Who are the users of synthetic DNA? Using metaphors to activate microorganisms at the center of synthetic biology

Erika Amethyst Szymanski*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Synthetic biology, a multidisciplinary field involving designing and building with DNA, often designs and builds in microorganisms. The role of these microorganisms tends to be understood through metaphors making the microbial cell like a machine and emphasizing its passivity: cells are described as platforms, chassis, and computers. Here, I point to the efficacy of such metaphors in enacting the microorganism as a particular kind of (non-)participant in the research process, and I suggest the utility of employing metaphors that make microorganisms a different kind of thing—active participants, contributors, and even collaborators in scientific research. This suggestion is worth making, I argue, because enabling the activity of the microorganism generates opportunities for learning from microorganisms in ways that may help explain currently unexplained phenomena in synthetic biology and suggest new experimental directions. Moreover, “activating the microorganism” reorients relationships between human scientists and nonhuman experimental participants away from control over nonhuman creatures and toward respect for and listening to them, generating conditions of possibility for exploring what responsible research means when humans try to be responsible toward and even with creatures across species boundaries.
Original languageEnglish
Article number15
Pages (from-to)1-16
Number of pages16
JournalLife Sciences, Society and Policy
Volume14
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 14 Jul 2018

Keywords

  • synthetic biology
  • yeast
  • metaphor
  • multispecies studies

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