Lab Work

WIPS - What's Synthetic Biology Got to Do with it? How Engineered Possibilities have Explanatory Value

Janella Baxter, Washington University in St. Louis

Abstract: The emerging discipline of synthetic biology is characterized by the entrance of scientists from other disciplines – notably electrical engineering, computer science and chemistry – into bioengineering. One thing that distinguishes some research programs in synthetic biology from other programs in traditional areas of the life sciences is that the former has created biological entities that have not evolved and are unlikely to evolve were it not for human engineering efforts. For philosophers and scientists who claim that the explanatory focus of biology is what has actually evolved by natural means in our world, synthetic biology presents a puzzle (Mitchell 2008, 2009, 2015; Ronai 2017; Wose 2004). As the historian and philosopher of science, Evelyn Fox Keller (Keller 2009), has asked: Do the products of synthetic biology fall within the explanatory scope of more traditional areas of biology or do they merely expand the universe of entities to explain? In this talk I argue that some of the technologies and techniques developed by synthetic biologists have played an ineliminable role in the explanations biologists have formulated about functional structure of proteins. By examining the experimental uses synthetic technologies have been used in protein modeling, I draw a distinction between assay technologies and interventionist technologies. Assay technologies serve to make observable an otherwise unobservable process; whereas, interventionist technologies don’t. Instead, interventionist technologies serve to break causal relationships in complex systems. Because the observations assay technologies generate are often of explanatory significance to biologists, phenomena that has not actually evolved by natural means are often integrated into biological theories and hypotheses.