May 8, 2017 – Synthetic Biology

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Presented in partnership with VCU’s Science, Technology and Society Program

Luis Campos, PhD
Dr. Campos is historian of science at the University of New Mexico and a Senior Fellow with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Center for Health Policy.  His scholarship integrates archival discoveries with contemporary fieldwork at the intersection of genetics and society. Dr. Campos earned his doctorate at Harvard University, is the author of Radium and the Secret of Life (University of Chicago Press, 2015), and is co-editor of Making Mutations: Objects, Practices, Contexts (Berlin, MPIWG, 2010).

Newspapers today are full of accounts of the future marvels of “synthetic biology,” a new approach to engineering life. But even a century ago, Room for 100+ curious minds – Seating on a first-come basis – Registration not required of bringing evolution under control and of developing a “technology of the living substance” were widespread. “Genetic engineering” was coined as early as the 1930s, coinciding with visions of amateurs in their gardens innovating a new backyard biology. Even the production of life itself in the test tube was a highly sought after and scarcely questionable goal. With the rise of recombinant DNA technologies in the 1970s, however, new and more complex meanings began to emerge as probing questions of promise and peril when engineering life–questions of safety, “violating species boundaries,” and even eugenical concerns–came to the fore in a way inconceivable to earlier investigators. A generation later, by 2004, when “synthetic biology” emerged as the latest newcomer it sought to inaugurate what was billed as a cool and revolutionary redesign of living systems to accomplish human-desired functions ranging from the whimsical to the urgent. In this talk, Prof. Campos traces these dramatic claims and profound reworkings of life promised by each generation of investigators, from the experimental garden to novel forms of synthetic life today, in an effort to explore the larger history of “life by design” over the past century.