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Laboratory equipment in the MICALIS quantitative metagenomics (MetaQuant) experimental facility. © INRA, INRA

How synthetic biology could benefit from the social sciences

An analysis of the literature paints a picture of the current state of synthetic biology

INRA sociologists analyzed all of the articles published in the field of synthetic biology from 2004 to 2013 (around 3,000 publications in total). The goal was to study the characteristics of this emerging field. The analysis has revealed the current topics of study and shows the important influence wielded by two major charismatic figures.

By Pascale Mollier, translated by Jessica Pearce
Updated on 12/08/2014
Published on 10/10/2014

Experiment taking place under a fume hood in a laboratory in the MICALIS quantitative metagenomics (MetaQuant) experimental facility. © INRA, NICOLAS Bertrand
Experiment taking place under a fume hood in a laboratory in the MICALIS quantitative metagenomics (MetaQuant) experimental facility © INRA, NICOLAS Bertrand

Field of study, discipline, or science?

“Synthetic biology is a technoscience, that is to say it blends fundamental and applied science, and it responds to society’s needs. It is here to stay, but it has not yet reached the status of a true discipline in France because it still lacks certain institutional features. For instance, it is not yet the focus of specific academic programs at institutions of higher learning, it does not have a formal academic association, and it is not the topic of regularly organized meetings,” explains Pierre-Benoit Joly (1).

According to Richard Kitney, a professor at Imperial College London, synthetic biology is at the same stage that the field of microelectronics was at in the 1950s, because, in his opinion, the field has yet to formulate its own theories or scientific laws.

A small but expanding field of study

Around 3,000 articles have been published over the last ten years (2004-2013) in the field of synthetic biology, which contrasts with the several million publications produced dealing with nanosciences and nanotechnologies. Clearly, synthetic biology is still a small field. However, it is growing rapidly: its publication rate has been climbing by 20–30% each year.

While most synthetic biology research is conducted in the USA, there are also some active research teams in Europe. Asia is currently little more than a blip on the radar but the continent is rapidly expanding its research presence.

Three main lines of investigation

A co-citation analysis of the 100 most-cited articles reveals the presence of thematic clusters. These clusters correspond to the three main lines of investigation being pursued by synthetic biologists:

  • “Bottom-up” research involving BioBricks—this is the most common subject of research represented in the articles; it involves manufacturing organisms using characterized DNA sequences, or BioBricks
  • “Top-down” research involving synthetic genomes—this involves assembling whole genomes
  • Research focused on protocells, i.e., cells that are entirely artificial

Citation analysis also makes it possible to retrace the history of each of these lines of investigation and see how they have changed over time.

- There is no single origin for the BioBrick line of investigation. It can be traced back to both mathematical modeling work and research on the first synthetic circuits that took place in the early 2000s. More recently, three different subgroups have formed. The first studies control and regulatory mechanisms, notably those involving RNA, with the principal aim of reducing the impact of emergent biological processes (see section 3). The second is focused on mammalian cells. The third is seeking practical applications for the research.

- Synthetic genome research seems to have started with a 1995 article in which the full genome sequence for Mycoplasma genitalium was published. Then, in the late 2000s, the Craig Venter Institute recreated this genome from scratch and conducted a series of experiments that led to the creation of the first synthetic genome that, when transplanted into a host bacterium, generated a fully functional organism (in 2010).

- Protocell research is much less dynamic. The last published article on this topic within the pool of the 100 most-cited articles dates back to 2006; it deals with the origins of life.

Many promises, few current applications

When the publications were analyzed for the co-occurrence of certain terms, new thematic clusters emerged. Overall, these clusters are in line with the aforementioned results. Three of the clusters are strongly tied to types of applications for synthetic biology research, namely medical applications, the production of biofuels, and molecular biology tools. The use of generic phrases such as “the discovery of new medicines,” “the biotechnology industry,” “next generation,” and “climate change” reveals that authors are employing rhetoric that reflects promised rather than concrete applications. Associated with these big-picture terms are others describing specific synthetic biology tools as well as the means used to engineer metabolic pathways, which highlights the importance of such approaches when it comes to generating present or future applications. Within these thematic clusters, many terms are used that relate to tools, precise research applications, and proofs of concept. However, overall, synthetic biology still seems to be anchored in the realm of promises, and the field’s contribution to solving major challenges remains intangible.

A few leading researchers and many one-time authors

An analysis of the approximately 10,000 authors who published in the field between 2004 and 2013 shows that most had only a single publication in their name. However, towards the end of that time period, the percentage of authors with more than two publications had greatly increased, reaching almost 30%, which indicates that, as a field of study, synthetic biology is becoming more firmly established.

Around 10 principal investigators are responsible for the field’s main publications. Some are biologists, but there are also chemists, computer engineers, and chemical engineers.
(1) Pierre-Benoit Joly is the research director for the INRA Sciences and Society Unit and head of IFRIS.

Scientific contact(s):

Associated Division(s):
Social Sciences, Agriculture and Food, Rural Development and Environment., Science for Action and Development
Associated Centre(s):


Raimbault, B., Cointet, J-P., and Joly, P-B. (2014). On the emergence of techno-scientific fields. The case of synthetic biology. arXiv: submit/1026903 (physics.soc-ph).

Two key figures

The bibliometric study shows that, of the 100 most-cited articles published on the topic of synthetic biology, 60 are directly or indirectly related to Drew Endy’swork. Craig Venter is also associated with a large number of publications. These two researchers have played a pivotal role in the development of the field. They also have two very different perspectives on how the notion of intellectual property applies in this domain.

- Craig Venter, via the Craig Venter Institute, has been responsible for more than half of the articles on “top-down” research, which deals with the synthesis of bacterial genomes. Projects led by Venter are focused on obtaining patents and have strong industry ties; this type of approach is fairly common in the realm of biotechnology.

- Drew Endy, an associate professor at Stanford, conducts “bottom-up” research, which is focused on the use of BioBricks. Between 2004 and 2009, Endy founded a number of institutes, including the iGEM Foundation (see section 6), the BioBricks Foundation, and BIOFAB. He was strategic director at SynBERC, a US multi-university research center, and remains one of their principal investigators.His view of intellectual property rights differs from that of Venter; he is an advocate of the open-source approach, a very different functional model that promotes the sharing of data and results.