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An unusual ethnography explores synthetic biology’s ethos and origin stories

Synthetic: How Life Got Made

Sophia Roosth
University of Chicago Press
257 pp.
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It is at times hard to distill that which unites the people and projects that travel under the name ‘synthetic biology,’” Sophia Roosth notes in this new ethnography, but that doesn’t stop her from following the field in flux, tracking “brave new organisms” (and those who make them) through classrooms and industrial laboratories from Boston to the Bay Area and from neighborhood bars to far-flung conferences. A chimera of anthropology bred with a dash of history, Synthetic reads synthetic biology’s constructs both as “materialized theories” and as “postcards from a particular cultural moment.”

Navigating the shimmering categories of the natural, unnatural, supernatural, and postnatural, Roosth plays with traditional ethnographic conventions of the anthropologists’ toolkit—religion, kinship, economy and property, labor, household, and origin tales—to show how “the form and function of life-forms have … oftentimes paralleled social, historical, and political forms of life.”

Roosth turns in her first chapter to Drew Endy’s early work redesigning the T7 virus. Keenly aware that the field’s “distinctiveness is more apparent in its approach and its practitioners’ speech than in the day-to-day benchwork of its labs,” her broader interest here is in tracing the diffusion of “evolutionary tales MIT synthetic biologists tell themselves about themselves.” Not only did Endy want to fight against the tyranny of evolution and “mutation without representation,” but in the wake of the Kitzmiller decision, tropes of “creation,” “construction,” and “intelligent design” regularly played out in lab conversations.

Rick Friedman/Contributor/getty images

De-extinction projects, including those led by George Church (shown), reveal how synthetic biologists are rethinking kinship and genealogy, argues Roosth.

The second chapter shifts to California, where Roosth explores the “genealogical logics” inherent in the work of Jay Keasling and others and relates advances in metabolic engineering to queer ideas of kinship and biocapital. Encountering “promiscuous” enzymes and “unnatural” metabolic pathways, Roosth troubles notions of synthetic relatedness and traces biological messiness through “scrambled species boundaries” that range, literally, from queer to kosher.

Legal frameworks can generate bugs, too: “I don’t want wheat fields in 2100 to operate like Windows 95,” Endy once said. Norms of sharing, commitments to an open-source biology, and concerns regarding intellectual property—patents, copyright, and copyleft, not to mention breaches of credit—dominate the third chapter, a retelling of the BioBrick road and of the contestation surrounding Craig Venter’s synthetic genomic watermark moment. By lifting the contributions of others to our attention, Roosth reflexively illustrates how even egregious representation without citation is “never neatly resolvable.”

But if that was the synthetic biology that was, the deskilling and robotization of synthetic biology emerges as Roosth’s next focus. Examining the assembly lines of Gingko Bioworks and Amyris—which she also sites under the specter of Marx and the “sway of management theory”—she argues that “when biological manufacture is scaled up and routinized, biology no longer requires biologists.” Indeed, as design is decoupled from manufacture and “scale replaces skill,” biomanufacturing “no longer furthers biological knowledge. Instead, it is antithetical to it.”

The ironies persist into the fifth chapter, in which—following a quick interlude of Kant—we arrive at the world of DIY amateurs, the field’s cool but “disqualified and illegitimate kin.” Converting labor into leisure by making hacking a home-based hobby, these bio(p)artisans critique “the behemoths of biotechnology” with manifestos promoting biohacking as a mode of political action. Conducting labwork in kitchens scarcely ensures domestic tranquility, however, and Roosth characterizes some of DIYbio’s efforts as “noticeably antagonistic, roguish, and mischievous in tone.”

Other limits of coolness are reached in the sixth chapter, where Roosth explores the “frosty enterprise” of “biotechnical resurrection.” Recounting recent efforts at de-extinction, she suggests that frozen embryos are not beholden to time in the same way as other biological creatures. Freezing, she notes, “grafts the past (species whose time has run out) and the past imperfect (rare or endangered species) onto the present (species filling in as surrogates for rare animals) in order to capacitate future life-forms.”

“There is no there there,” Roosth ultimately concludes, channeling Gertrude Stein’s method of wreaking worlds with words. “What counts as ‘real’ or ‘original’ no longer makes any genetic, genealogical, ontological, or historical sense.” But at this point it becomes clear that such conflation and endless recursion is at the very center of her inquiry. The book fittingly reaches a crescendo with a queer self-portrait, a surreal “reading of a reading of a painting about painting” by René Magritte.

Synthetic offers a writerly assemblage of our synthetic moment, where densely evocative analytical contributions and cognitive fireworks are juxtaposed with intimate confessions, all in the poetry of contemporary ethnography.

About the author

The reviewer is the Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair of Astrobiology and in the Department of History, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM 87131, USA.