Bacterial cultures: ontologies of bacteria and engineering expertise at the nexus of synthetic biology and water services

TitleBacterial cultures: ontologies of bacteria and engineering expertise at the nexus of synthetic biology and water services
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2013
AuthorsBalmer, AS, Molyneux-Hodgson, S
JournalEngineering Studies
Volume5
Pagination59-73
Date Published2013/04/01
Publication Languageeng
ISBN Number1937-8629
AbstractIn this paper we report on ethnographic work developed over two years, working as social scientists within a project on synthetic biology (SB), which aimed to use engineered bacteria as solutions to water industry problems. We were asked to help solve the ?barrier to innovation? by our engineering colleagues who believed that industrial and public ignorance would block their innovations. Instead of orienting around ?ignorance? we chose to explore the different ontologies of bacteria that were adopted in the various practices of the many sites involved in the project. We describe our observations in microbiological laboratories and compare them to a waste water treatment facility. Engineers in the lab understand bacteria as controllable but also vulnerable, thus their ability to manipulate and protect bacteria becomes important in their claims to expertise. In contrast, engineers in the water facility understand bacteria as dangerous, but they become skilled in protecting their bodies, make sense of their relation to bacteria through immunological narratives and claim expertise through an olfactory epistemology. Overall, we conclude that the ontologies of ?engineer? and ?bacteria? are interrelated through context-specific practices. Finally, we argue that this account is instructive for current policy and engagement discussions around SB.
URLhttp://dx.doi.org/10.1080/19378629.2013.766198
DOI10.1080/19378629.2013.766198

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