The genesis of synthetic biology: Innovation, interdisciplinarity and the IGEM student competition

Synthetic biology involves using interchangeable DNA sequences to genetically engineer organisms in new ways. In this paper I use the annual International Genetically Engineered Machines (IGEM) undergraduate student competition at MIT as a case study to examine ways in which synthetic biologists, several of whom were originally pioneers in software and computing, have attempted to establish this field. In particular, they have emphasised open source science and technology, the ‘private collective’ innovation model and interdisciplinary team-working. The registry of standard biological parts (‘BioBricks’), featured in the competition and maintained by MIT, is a good example of this open source approach to science. BioBricks are freely and publicly accessible, allowing research to develop quickly, and at relatively low cost. Notably, one student team used BioBricks in their project to engineer e-coli to recognise arsenic, which could be used for low-cost water testing in countries like Bangladesh, where many wells are arsenic polluted. At the same time, there are concerns about some aspects of the development of such tools and their potential for bioterrorism. Interviews with key scientists and engineers who established the competition and students who have taken part form the basis of the dataset.
Year of Conference
Conference Name
American Sociological Association Annual Meeting