Putting Bacteria to Work: The Social Constructions of Ethical Energy within Synthetic Biology

Carmen McLeod and Brigitte Nerlich

The UK government has made significant investment into so-called ‘fourth-generation’ biofuel technologies. These biofuels are based on engineering the metabolic pathways of microorganisms in order to create chemicals compatible with existing infrastructure. Bacteria play an important role in what is promoted as potentially a new ‘biological’ industrial revolution, which could address some of the negative environmental legacies of the last. Our paper presents qualitative data from interviews and participant-observation with synthetic biologists, and explores the ways in which they understand their work with bacteria to be part of a new ethical energy future. Our research highlights tensions between the ethical, economic, and environmental discourses which emerge through putting bacteria to work. In particular, we contrast the promissory rhetoric of synthetic biology at policy level with the thoughts and practices of researchers tasked with fulfilling this vision. Several key anxieties are identified: 1) time pressure to produce marketable ‘products’; 2) the spectre of ‘another GM’ and lack of public support for their work; and 3) the problem of ‘scaling up’ from the laboratory to the factory. Our paper discusses the challenge for synthetic biologists when trying to balance the essentially curiosity-driven and intrinsically fulfilling process of working with bacteria, against the essentially more fraught and challenging task of making bacteria work towards meeting the extrinsic economic and environmental benefits envisioned by industry and government.