The socionatural engineering of reductionist metaphors: A political ecology of synthetic biology

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11 Scopus citations


Political ecologists and biomedical anthropologists influenced by science and technology studies view genes as socionatural articulation points, or boundary objects, in the reshaping of societies, natures, and economies. Many of these scholars portray genetic technology as a tool for producing a new class of commodities. Scientists working for biotechnology corporations, they argue, mobilize the reductive metaphor that genes are information or code. They do this to stabilize genes for trade and ownership. Social scientists note that social negotiations involved in this reductive work, along with contingencies in the biological functioning of genes, limit and pattern how genetic material can be commodified. In this paper I critically review and extend these empirical analyses with attention to how current legal battles are redefining how genes can be owned. I then identify places where political ecologists can contribute to detailing the social, legal, and biological mutations motivated by the commodification of genes. This attention is crucial as traditional genetic technologies are being replaced by synthetic biology. Synthetic biology is a set of scientific practices that attempt to actualize the reductive informational code metaphor. Synthetic biologists seek to strip genes and organisms of their unpredictable behaviors by building organisms from the ground up, according to engineering design principles. By detailing synthetic biologists' attempts to reengineer both the structure of genetic code, and the cellular systems that give this code material expression, I first argue that synthetic technologies are producing standardized organisms and molecular parts that are extremely conducive to commodification. Additionally, I assert that the sociotechnical strategies employed by synthetic biologists to find and create useful genetic material intentionally avoid ambiguities in gene-ownership regimes as they are currently constituted. Finally, I examine situations where political ecologists can contribute to the critical analysis and transformation of synthetic biology's social and technical terrains.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1127-1143
Number of pages17
JournalEnvironment and Planning A
Issue number5
StatePublished - 2013


  • Commodification
  • Genes
  • Political ecology
  • Synthetic biology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Environmental Science (miscellaneous)


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