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Can life be engineered? Epistemological roots and blind spots of Synthetic Biology

Abstract : Synthetic Biology is the latest attempt in experimental biology to reach the long lasting goal of mastering processes of life by engineering them. This emergent discipline results from the novel convergence of biology and concept and tools from other fields such as computing and engineering sciences. It relies on rational design of bioparts, modules, or organisms, as opposed to the tinkering methods provided so far by the even most sophisticated biotechnologies. Such an approach could have major consequences, for both applied and fundamental research. But this appealing narrative may obscure important epistemological issues, some of them being rooted in old misconceptions or shortcomings in biology. By focusing mainly on the mechanistic dimension of living beings, Synthetic Biology partially recycle ancient debates and could miss the opportunity to provide an integrative account of what makes life actually specific in the natural world. A first insight into a critical reassessment of some of the goals, the lexicon, and the theoretical foundations of Synthetic Biology is proposed, as other natural dimensions of the biological world are highlighted. Taken as a whole, these considerations challenge several core concepts of the discipline, but may help to redefine some of its strategies and overcome some major hurdles.
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Thomas Heams. Can life be engineered? Epistemological roots and blind spots of Synthetic Biology. BIO Web of Conferences, EDP Sciences, 2015, ORIGINS – Studies in Biological and Cultural Evolution, 4, pp.00016. ⟨10.1051/bioconf/20150400016⟩. ⟨hal-01587867⟩

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