We are pleased to share two new publications from BEC members which our readers might find of interest. Both have been included in our updated list of publications.
The Artificial Cell, the Semipermeable Membrane, and the Life that Never Was, 1864–1901
Since the early nineteenth century, a membrane or wall has been central to the cell’s identity as the elementary unit of life. Yet the literally and metaphorically marginal status of the cell membrane made it the site of clashes over the definition of life and the proper way to study it. In this article I show how the modern cell membrane was conceived of by analogy to the first “artificial cell,” invented in 1864 by the chemist Moritz Traube (1826–1894), and reimagined by the plant physiologist Wilhelm Pfeffer (1845–1920) as a precision osmometer. Pfeffer’s artificial cell osmometer became the conceptual and empirical basis for the law of dilute solutions in physical chemistry, but his use of an artificial analogue to theorize the existence of the plasma membrane as distinct from the cell wall prompted debate over whether biology ought to be more closely unified with the physical sciences, or whether it must remain independent as the science of life. By examining how the histories of plant physiology and physical chemistry intertwined through the artificial cell, I argue that modern biology relocated vitality from protoplasmic living matter to non-living chemical substances—or, in broader cultural terms, that the disenchantment of life was accompanied by the (re)enchantment of ordinary matter.
The Diversity of Engineering in Synthetic Biology
A recurrent theme in the characterization of synthetic biology is the role of engineering. This theme is widespread in the accounts of scholars studying this field and the biologists working in it, in those of the biologists themselves, as well as in policy documents. The aim of this article is to open this black-box of engineering that is supposed to influence and change contemporary life sciences. Too often, both synthetic biologists and their critics assume a very narrow understanding of what engineering is about, resulting in an unfruitful debate about whether synthetic biology possesses genuine engineering methodologies or not. By looking in more detail to the diversity of engineering conceptions in debates concerning synthetic biology, a richer perspective can be developed. In this article, I will examine five influential ways in which engineering is understood in these debates, namely engineering as applied science, as rational methodology, context-sensitive practice, cunning activity or design. The claim is first of all thus to argue that engineering must not be seen as something stable or characterized by a fixed essence. It rather has multiple meanings and interpretations. Secondly, the claim is that most of the debates on synthetic biology cannot be indifferent towards the question which conception of engineering is at play, since the specific questions and concerns that pop up depend to a great extent on the precise conception of engineering one has in account. Many of the existing debates around synthetic biology can thus be reinterpreted and readdressed once one is aware of which conception of engineering is at play.