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Title: 'Accept no limits' : imaginaries of life, responsibility and biosafety in xenobiology
Author: Aparicio De Narvaez, Alberto
ISNI:       0000 0004 7965 1788
Awarding Body: UCL (University College London)
Current Institution: University College London (University of London)
Date of Award: 2019
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Researchers in the emerging field of xenobiology aim to explore the non-canonical (or non-natural) biological world through the development of alternative genetic systems and chemistries. This discipline may help us better understand the origin of life, as well as enable the development of biological systems with built-in safety features (biocontainment). The development of xenobiology is assumed to be guided by goals, narratives, imaginaries and visions of possible futures, whose 'opening up' and examination are the central question of this thesis. This thesis combines work in science and technology studies and 'responsible research and innovation.' It focuses on the values, assumptions and "sociotechnical imaginaries" that drive the development of xenobiology, in terms of how xenobiologists understand and redefine life, and how they construct promises of biosafety through biocontainment. The thesis' argument draws on semi-structured interviews with scientists in the fields of synthetic biology and xenobiology. In addition, I conducted a year-long participant observation in a xenobiology laboratory located in London. This thesis argues that two sociotechnical imaginaries lead the development of xenobiology. The first is about redefining life, or "life unbound," according to which the biological universe is thought to include (or navigate) novel biological worlds. Second, an imaginary of 'controllable emergence' accounts for claims of biosafety and governance by containment, a response to the collective imagination of the public who are fearful and concerned about release, and portrays scientists as responsible by pursuing safety. As xenobiologists test the limits of what is biologically possible, they also test the limits of what is socially acceptable. I describe how xenobiologists, in order to justify research in their field, draw on existing legacies of governance, such as the Asilomar Conference, and previous controversies over genetically modified crops. These legacies are still in use because they allow scientists to turn questions about governance into questions about design and science. These assumptions, shared by science funders, help to attract resources and visibility to the field, as well as legitimize the release of genetically modified microorganisms. This thesis concludes by suggesting that xenobiology should be open to uncertainty and frameworks that give up control in exchange for deliberation and reframing of problems as technologies advance, following ideas of real-world experimentation and collective experimentation.
Supervisor: Stilgoe, J. ; Balmer, B. Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available