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Join the Rotman Synthetic Biology Reading Group for a meeting with Massimiliano Simons for a discussion of his 2021 paper, “Synthetic biology as a technoscience: The case of minimal genomes and essential genes”. Individuals interested in attending the talk need not participate in the reading group, but will need to register to receive a link to the Zoom meeting.

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Massimiliano Simons, Synthetic biology as a technoscience: The case of minimal genomes and essential genes, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A,Volume 85, 2021, Pages 127-136, ISSN 0039-3681, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.shpsa.2020.09.012.


This article examines how minimal genome research mobilizes philosophical concepts such as minimality and essentiality. Following a historical approach the article aims to uncover what function this terminology plays and which problems are raised by them. Specifically, four historical moments are examined, linked to the work of Harold J. Morowitz, Mitsuhiro Itaya, Eugene Koonin and Arcady Mushegian, and J. Craig Venter. What this survey shows is a historical shift away from historical questions about life or descriptive questions about specific organisms towards questions that explore biological possibilities: what are possible forms of minimal genomes, regardless of whether they exist in nature?

Moreover, it highlights a fundamental ambiguity at work in minimal genome research between a universality claim and a standardization claim: does a minimal genome refer to the minimal gene set for any organism whatsoever? Or does it refer rather to a gene set that will provide stable, robust and predictable behaviour, suited for biotechnological applications? Two diagnoses are proposed for this ambiguity: a philosophical diagnosis of how minimal genome research either misunderstands the ontology of biological entities or philosophically misarticulates scientific practice. Secondly, a historical diagnosis that suggests that this ambiguity is part of a broader shift towards technoscience.

Speaker Profile:

Massimiliano SimonsMassimiliano Simons is a postdoctoral researcher at the department of philosophy and moral sciences at the UGent. After a MA in Philosophy (KU Leuven, 2014) and a MSc in Sociology (KU Leuven, 2015) he started a PhD in philosophy (funded by FWO) at the Institute of Philosophy at the KU Leuven in 2015, under the supervision of Prof. Paul Cortois. He defended his PhD in 2019, entitled “The Raven and the Trojan Horse: Constructing Nature in Synthetic Biology”. It focused on the recent emerging discipline of synthetic biology, which aims to understand life by synthesising it in the lab, and how to understand this discipline in the light of constructivist claims in philosophy of science.

In 2019 he started a FWO postdoc at Ghent University, under supervision of Prof. Maarten Van Dyck, focusing on the concept of ‘technoscience’. The goal is to investigate how the concept is understood by numerous philosophers and sociologists and to confront these conceptions with contemporary technoscientific fields such as synthetic biology and data science.

Image credit: Photo by CDC on Unsplash

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