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'Accept no limits': imaginaries of life, responsibility and biosafety in xenobiology

Aparicio De Narvaez, Alberto; (2019) 'Accept no limits': imaginaries of life, responsibility and biosafety in xenobiology. Doctoral thesis (Ph.D), UCL (University College London). Green open access

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THESIS FINAL VERSION FOR STUDENT CENTRE (AAN 24.06.19).pdf - Accepted version

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Abstract

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.

Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Qualification: Ph.D
Title: 'Accept no limits': imaginaries of life, responsibility and biosafety in xenobiology
Event: UCL
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
Language: English
Additional information: Copyright © The Author 2019. Original content in this thesis is licensed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) Licence (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/). Any third-party copyright material present remains the property of its respective owner(s) and is licensed under its existing terms. Access may initially be restricted at the author’s request.
UCL classification: UCL
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL BEAMS
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL BEAMS > Faculty of Maths and Physical Sciences
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL BEAMS > Faculty of Maths and Physical Sciences > Dept of Science and Technology Studies
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10076701
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