December 9, 2016, by Brigitte Nerlich

Origins of life; origins of synthetic biology

I was sitting on a train to London the other day reading a fascinating article on the early history of synthetic biology. In this post I just want to share some interesting insights I gleaned from that paper, as it’s always a good thing to know a bit more about the history of a field in which one is working. I am involved with synthetic biology as a humanities/social science scholar interested in where synthetic biology comes form, where it is going and whether it is doing so ‘responsibly‘.

The paper I was reading was written by Juli Peretó who works at the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Valencia, Spain. It is entitled: ‘Erasing borders: A brief chronicle of early synthetic biology’, and it appeared in the Journal of Molecular Evolution on 30 November 2016.

As Peretó says, many people, including the person I was with on the train, assume that synthetic biology is a “new technoscientific discipline, intertwining biology, engineering, and computational sciences, which appeared at the turn of the 21st century” (p. 176). But of course, many scholars, such as Evelyn Fox Keller for example, have discussed the longer history of synthetic biology and Peretó’s work builds on their work and adds to it.

History of synthetic biology

This reminded me of the time I first became interested in synthetic biology and of a brochure published in 2008 by my then work colleagues Andrew Balmer and Paul Martin, which deals with the social and ethical challenges posed by this new discipline. While Balmer and Martin acknowledge that the field only became popular in the early 2000s, they have a section, entitled ‘Something old, something new’ which provides a few brief details about its history, mentioning Loeb, Pauly, Morgan, Muller, etc., but also Wacław Szybalski, a pioneer not mentioned by Peretó, as his focus is on early synthetic biology. I still want to mention Szybalski here, as the quote provided by Balmer and Martin nicely links the early history of synthetic biology with modern developments:

Let me now comment on the question “what next”. Up to now we are working on the descriptive phase of molecular biology. … But the real challenge will start when we enter the synthetic biology phase of research in our field. We will then devise new control elements and add these new modules to the existing genomes or build up wholly new genomes. This would be a field with the unlimited expansion potential and hardly any limitations to building “new better control circuits” and …. Finally other “synthetic” organisms, like a “new better mouse”. … I am not concerned that we will run out of exciting and novel ideas, … in the synthetic biology, in general. [Szybalski, 1974]. (Quoted by Balmer and Martin, 2008: 8)

Peretó’s article focuses on Jacques Loeb, Alfonso L. Herrera, Stéphane Leduc, John Butler Burke and others. There is a nice tree diagram in the article which provides a conceptual genealogy of early synthetic biologists (p. 181).

Early synthetic biology

Early synthetic biologists were interested in understanding ‘the origin of life’, an issue that had been rather taboo at the turn from the 19th to the 20th century (p. 176). This was interesting to me, as I remembered that questions about the origin of language were also taboo for a long time (to be precise, between 1866 and the 1980s) and only started to be asked again almost at the same time as questions about the origin of life were becoming more popular…but that’s by the by (although Darwin links the two topics).

In the case of early synthetic biology, this taboo that forbade dabbling in origin of life speculations came about because questions about the origin of life were caught in “the dilemma between the natural emergence of life supported by Darwinians, and the refutation of spontaneous generation held by Pasteur” (pp. 176-177), as well as between vitalistic and mechanistic views of life.

Early synthetic biologists were strictly on the side of a mechanistic view of life. Some adopted an experimentalist approach to study life; some tried to create life through artificial synthesis. I’ll only discuss two of them, very briefly. You’ll have to read to article to learn more.


The foremost pioneer of a mechanistic and experimental approach to life and biology was Jacques Loeb (1859-1924), a German scientist (born in the Eifel, my own home region of Germany!) who emigrated to the United States in 1891. He wrote a seminal book in 1912 entitled The Mechanistic Conception of Life, in which he neatly summarised one of the goals of synthetic biology by saying: “We must succeed in producing living matter artificially, or we must find the reasons why this is impossible”. In his 1987 book Controlling Life, Philip Pauly, a historian of biology, pointed out that Loeb believed that biology could be formulated not as a natural science but as an engineering science. Peretó notes that Loeb’s position parallels “the strong branch of synthetic biology that considers organisms as manipulative and controllable machines, not in a figurative or metaphorical way, but literally” (p. 178).


The other pioneer of synthetic biology avant la lettre discussed in Peretó’s article is Stéphane Leduc (1853-1939), a French biochemist who was, for a time, a bit of a scientific outcast in France, as his research “touched too closely on the burning question of spontaneous generation”. Leduc was particularly interested in “osmotic growths in the primitive ocean” (p. 179). He first used the term ‘biologie synthétique’ in 1910, in his book Théorie physico-chimique de la vie et générations spontanées and then again in 1912 in La Biologie synthétique. Like Loeb, Leduc asked an important question regarding synthetic biology, in this case (looking over his shoulder at organic chemistry): “Why is it less acceptable to seek how to make a cell than how to make a molecule?”

Synthetic biology, media and hype

Everybody reading this post will probably remember the media hype that Craig Venter generated about a century after Loeb and Leduc, when he announced the creation of artificial life. Reading Peretó’s article, it was interesting to see that this is nothing new in synthetic biology. In 1899 Loeb “discovered artificial parthenogenesis on inducing unfertilized sea-urchin eggs to develop with physicochemical treatments” (p. 177). He then rose to popularity and prominence but felt rather uneasy about the hype. He therefore issued a statement in Science to say that “none of the statements printed in the newspapers have been authorized by me”. Another early synthetic biologist discussed by Peretó, John Butler Burke, also caused some media stir after he published a book in 1906 entitled The origin of life: Its physical bases and definition. According to Peretó, he was “presented by newspapers as having achieved the ‘creation of life’”! Such media hype runs through synthetic biology like like letters through a stick of rock.

Past and present; science and media

As Peretó says at the end of the article: “To glean a better understanding of contemporary biology, we should start with the study of its historical roots, the origin of theories, concepts and models” (p. 182). I’d add that this also applies to the popularisation of synthetic biology.

Further reading:

Morange, M. (2016). Une histoire de la biologie. République des Savoirs.
Porcar, M., & Peretó, J. (2014). Synthetic biology: From iGEM to the artificial cell (Vol. 12). Springer.
Posted in responsible innovationsynthetic biology