5th meeting of the CEFISES seminar on Artifacts of Scientific Practice


26 février 2020

15h00 -> 17h00


UCLouvain - ISP (Cefises) - Salle Ladrière

We are pleased to announce the 5th meeting of the CEFISES seminar on Artifacts of Scientific Practice. 

The calendar for the new sessions is :

* February 26: Massimiliano Simons (UGent)
* April 1: David Chavalarias, Alexandre Delanoë, Quentin Lobbe (ISC, Paris 1)
* May 13: Steffen Ducheyne (VUB, Logic & Philosophy of Science)

As with all the CEFISES seminars, all meetings will be from 15–17h, in Salle Ladrière, unless mentioned above.

The title and abstract for next Wednesday's meeting are:

Synthetic Biology as a Technoscience: The Case of Minimal Genomes and Essential Genes
Massimiliano Simons, UGent

Massimo Simons : "A very influential strand of synthetic biology is the synthesis of so-called ‘minimal genomes’, i.e. a genome that is reduced to its bare minimum by removing all ‘non-essential’ genes (Mushegian, 1999). The underlying ambition is both to  learn new things about biological systems and to create new and valuable applications. Minimal genomes are described as the ‘chassis’ that forms a platform technology on which, depending on the required application, new genes could then be added.

Scientific work on minimal genomes raises a number of interesting philosophical questions. There are obvious ethical and social questions, but I will focus in this paper on the epistemological and metaphysical ones. For example, what is meant by ‘essential’   and ‘minimal’ in these cases? And in what way does the study of artificial, minimal genomes help biologists to understand natural living organisms?

In this paper I will address these questions through a historical approach of the histoy of minimal genomes, starting from its roots in theoretical biology and comparative genomics in the 1990s (Itaya, 1995) to more contemporary work (Vickers, 2016),  working with shifting model organisms such as Escherichia coli (Smalley, Whiteley, Conway, 2003) and Mycoplasma mycoides (Gibson et al., 2010) to more contemporary projects about synthetic chromosomes of yeast.

My ambition is to defend five theses. Firstly, my claim is that synthetic biologists endorse a form of essentialism linked to the question of necessity: something is essential if it is necessarily present and its lack would entail that the living system cannot function.  Secondly, this focus on necessity and possibility is, according to my view, something that differentiates contemporary projects in synthetic biology from many earlier forms of molecular biology. The specificity of synthetic biology, in other words, resides in its focus on biological possibilities. Thirdly, my claim is that this focus on biological possibilities is mainly a product of new, accessible experimental artifacts, such as minimal genomes, translating these otherwise speculative questions in meaningful experimental ones.

As a fourth claim I want to argue, nonetheless, that research in minimal genomes suffers from a fundamental ambiguity, related to this notion of a minimal genome. This notion can either refer to a metaphysical claim about which genes are universal and necessary for any living system whatsoever (the universality claim); or it can refer to the practical claim about the genes necessary for a biological system to function reliably and uniformly within a desired, often artificial context (the standardization claim). Most synthetic biologists do not distinguish between both claims, but the distinction can be mobilized to highlight a number of central tensions within the field.

Finally I will end with a broader speculation based on this analysis, namely how the above issues provide evidence that we must characterize synthetic biology as a form of ‘technoscience’, related to fields such as robotics, data science and nanotechnology (Bensaude-Vincent & Loeve, 2018). Precisely the focus on possibilities allow these fields to effortlessly combine a focus on fundamental research with one on applied research."

References :

Bensaude-Vincent, B. & Loeve, S. (2018). Toward a Philosophy of Technosciences, 169-86. In: S. Loeve; X. Guchet & B. Bensaude-Vincent. French Philosophy of Technology. Cham: Springer.
Gibson, D., Glass, J., Lartigue, C., Noskov, V., Chuang, R., Algire, M., . . . Venter, J. (2010). Creation of a Bacterial Cell Controlled by a Chemically Synthesized Genome. Science, 329(5987), 52-56.
Itaya, M. (1995). An estimation of minimal genome size required for life. FEBS Letters, 362(3), 257-260.
Mushegian, A. (1999). The minimal genome concept. Current Opinion in Genetics & Development, 9(6), 709-714.
Smalley, D., Whiteley, M., & Conway, T. (2003). In search of the minimal Escherichia coli genome. Trends in Microbiology, 11(1), 6-8.
Vickers, C. (2016). The minimal genome comes of age. Nature Biotechnology, 34(6), 623-624.


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