This post originally appeared on the brand new Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (Synberc) Blog. Check it out for other new posts by Jay Keasling and Linda Kahl on intellectual property law and synthetic biology.


Synthetic biology is often referred to as "the field of the future," the foundation of a that will change the way we produce fuels, materials, medicines, as well as the way we produce knowledge of biological systems. But while the self-consciously revolutionary language of synthetic biology declares a change of the industrial status quo, the metaphors we rely on are explicit references to the successful revolutions of past industrial technologies. The term synthetic biology echoes the successes of synthetic chemistry, while the guiding concept of standardization in genetic components is modeled on 19th century standardization of interchangeable parts. Industrial metaphors mix further as we climb the abstraction hierarchy; genetic parts are assembled to fit into a cellular chassis, creating logic gates and circuits that can compute biological information, leading to the control of cellular factories, rapidly designed, built, and commercialized on an "Ikea"-like scale.

These metaphors help us to understand how an industrial revolution might emerge from a biology lab, showing a possible path from ideas to industry. Like the "horseless carriage," perhaps the analogies of living cells to computers give us a sense of familiarity with a technology whose potential we have not yet fully grasped. Industrial metaphors have long played a role in how we understand biology and the human body, from Fritz Kahn’s 1927 paintings of “Man as Industrial Palace to analogies between brains and computers. By referencing the products and methods of previous industrial revolutions, synthetic biology aims not only to aid understanding but also to demonstrate the future potential of the field. These metaphors draw the projected lines of Moore's exponential increase as strands of DNA, imagining analogous and expanding industries based on carbon and sunlight rather than silicon and fossil fuels.

How will this revolutionary transition happen? What conditions are necessary to foster such a change? As synthetic biology is largely still a laboratory rather than industrial enterprise, perhaps Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, can provide a useful framework for understanding the structure of the promised techno-scientific-industrial revolution of synthetic biology. Based on his analysis of the history of chemistry and physics, Kuhn argues that the evolution of scientific knowledge proceeds by punctuated equilibrium--periods of "normal science" interrupted by scientific revolutions, paradigm shifts that change the nature of the questions being asked and the "puzzles" being solved. Paradigms shift after the accumulated weight of unexpected results becomes too large, when facts that don’t fit the model begin to open new questions and when the "failure of existing rules is the prelude to a search for new ones."

Some of the failures of modern industry are explicit starting points for synthetic biology projects, like engineered bacteria that can sense or consume industrial pollutants, but no revolution can address all the failures of the paradigms that came before. For scientific revolutions, Kuhn writes, "To be accepted as paradigm, a theory must seem better than its competitors, but it need not, and in fact never does, explain all the facts with which it can be confronted." What problems can synthetic biology solve and what problems are missed, outside of the paradigmatic umbrella of biotechnology? What new problems might arise with a biology-based industrial revolution?

These are difficult and important questions with no clear answer, questions that we ask ourselves when we talk about risk, implications, and outcomes of new technologies. But perhaps there is a deeper question that emerges when we look at synthetic biology through a Kuhnian lens: by working to solve the problems of current industry, replacing or cleaning up after polluting chemical factories with microscopic cellular factories, are we simply replicating the old paradigm with a biological tint? Are we talking revolution while just solving puzzles?

Industrial metaphors for biological systems are being inverted, but the industrial paradigm remains: “Man as Industrial Palace” becomes “Industrial Palace in a Cell.” How can a biologically driven industry change these metaphors, change the way we make things and the way we do things that takes biology on its own terms, that changes the paradigm through which we see the world?

Within synthetic biology, programs that I’ve been involved with such as Synthetic Biology Leadership Excellence Accelerator Program (LEAP)--sponsored by Synberc's Practices thrust--are efforts to integrate new questions, metaphors, and paradigms into the research goals and visions of synthetic biologists. Synthetic Aesthetics joins artists and designers with scientists and engineers to consider not just implications of the products of synthetic biology but to reconsider what those products might be—the metaphors that we use to understand and design nature. LEAP has different but complementary goals, bringing together scientists and engineers in academia and industry with experts from policy, ethics, economics, and law and providing a space to creatively consider what it would mean for synthetic biology to work in the public interest.

Both programs encourage those involved with synthetic biology to think beyond existing paradigms, both in science and industry. Conversations like these may help us to push beyond the industrial metaphors that we depend on when we talk about the potential of synthetic biology, providing us with new paradigms that can be truly revolutionary.