Center for Interdisziplinary Research

Synthesis — Interdisciplinary Interconnections in Synthetic Biology

Date: September 30 - October 1, 2011

Convenors: Ulrich Krohs (Bielefeld), Maureen O'Malley (Exeter), Mark Bedau (Portland, OR)

This workshop explored scientific, philosophical and social dimensions of the field of synthetic biology by examining its research strategies, conceptual apparatus and societal implications. In light of the attention and funding being given to the field, and because of the ethical and risk issues attached to the creation of unnatural forms of life in synthetic biology, such meta-scientific reflection is certainly required to accompany its further development.

The format of the workshop was experimental, and turned out as a great success. An extensive amount of interaction and discussion was implemented by dividing the plenum into breakout groups of no more than eight participants after each set of three presentations. The group leaders took the challenge of preparing impromptu a presentation of the discussion. Breakout groups helped to involve literally every attendant in the exploration of the different dimensions of synthetic biology and fostered extended exchanges of arguments than no plenum discussion could allow for. After one hour of group discussion, results and open questions were presented to the plenum, followed by another discussion, which usually took up one or two particularly interesting ideas from each group.

The primary questions addressed by the workshop were:

  1. How does synthetic biology bring disciplines together? Does it transform or augment approaches based on analysis? What does it mean to make biology an engineering science? Is synthetic biology living up to its slogan, ‘what I cannot make I do not understand’?
  2. How are systems and synthetic biology interconnected? What special challenges and opportunities arise by applying systemic approaches and computer simulations to synthetic biology? In what ways does synthetic biology depend on reduction, and in what ways is it holistic?
  3. How does synthetic biology challenge and change theories and definitions of life? Is it able to cast new light on the origins of life? Does it invoke or create novel concepts of nature and the natural, or of technology itself?
  4. How does synthetic biology affect society more broadly? Does it pose special challenges about ethics and risk, beyond those posed by, for example, traditional genetic engineering? Is a new paradigm of innovation and commercialization of the life sciences emerging?

Systems biologists, philosophers and social scientists contributed their perspectives on these issues. During the course of discussions, near-consensus views emerged on some of the issues, while others remained controversial. The workshop proved that the dialogue between disciplines concerning the methods, aims, and possible impact of the new, prospering field of synthetic biology to be not only feasible, but even beneficial.


Steven A. Benner (Gainesville, FL), Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent (Paris), Joachim Boldt (Freiburg i.Br.), Werner Callebaut (Altenberg), Jane Calvert (Edinburgh), Martin Carrier (Bielefeld), Athel Cornish-Bowden (Marseille), Margret Engelhard (Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler), Stefan Königstein (Bremen), Maria Kronfeldner (Bielefeld), Hang-Mao Lee (Bielefeld), Sabina Leonelli (Exeter), Christophe Malaterre (Paris), Michel Morange (Paris), Kenneth Oye (Cambridge, MA), Alfred Pühler (Bielefeld), Kepa Ruiz-Mirazo (San Sebastián), Patrick Schwientek (Bielefeld), A. Michael Sismour (Boston, MA), Björn Sommer (Bielefeld)

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