Project Name

Synthetic Biology - a Transatlantic Comparison of Future Visions


“It's Alive!”, “Let there be life!” Such was the wording of many newspaper headlines introducing the story that The J. Craig Venter Institute had succeeded in constructing the first self-replicating bacterial cell as part of their research program in 'Synthetic Biology' in May 2010. The reference to horror-flicks and divine intervention in these headlines indicates that it is not just new types of artificial organisms that will be brought to life in the next decade. Controversies about the potentials and pitfalls of the technologies emerging from the research carried out under the heading of synthetic biology will most probably be very lively as well, and they already have found their way into the agendas of a broad range of stakeholders. When looking back at the social processes, political debates and ethical queries accompanying recent technologies such as stem-cells, GMO and Nanotechnology this, however, should come as no surprise (Horst, 2005; Horst, 2008; Jasanoff, 2007). These cases have illustrated that different stakeholders frame technological issues in different ways and that the resonance of visions of their future potentials and threats have been central in constructing the social realm that these technologies are currently taken (Selin, 2006).

With this history as a backdrop it seems very likely that the production of social and epistemic assemblages surrounding the issue ´synthetic biology´ will be a complex and controversial process as well. The research project ”Synthetic Biology - a transatlantic comparison of future visions” is rooted in the approach to technological development sketched out above. Especially the debate about GMO in the mid 1990´s has been a source of inspiration for the research design because the controversies over this technology led to a European moratorium on genetically modified products that was later sued by the USA for breaking trade agreements and deemed illegal by WTO. GMO was suddently the object of a transatlantic value-clash that were played out in a formal setting like WTO but really had its roots in radically different conceptions of proper technology-assesment. Germany and the US were two major players in this debate and with the controversies about synthetic biology emerging it is important to understand the visions of synthetic that are central to the two countries and analyze the central actors in promoting these visions. Only through an understanding of the central actors and the issue-networks they are embedded in will it be possible to approach the conflict in a more constructive manner than through law-suits and moratoriums.

The goal of the study is accordingly to understand the visions of synthetic biology and the thematic clusters that are central in the two national webs and analyze the central actors in promoting these visions.

Team Members

Ricardo Amaral

Anders Koed Madsen

Florian Wiencek

Research Questions

i) What are the visions of the future of synthetic biology that appear as central in the German and American webs respectively and do specific themes feature more prominently in one country as opposed to the other?

ii) Can the visions and themes be said to belong to well defined clusters of actors and are specific actors central in the structural and semantic networks that comprise the two national webs?

iii) What are the points of contact, both semantically and structurally, between the two national webs?


Research Protocol:


Step 1: Create a source list of institutional / commercial actors for both Germany and the USA

A detailed documentation of this step can be found by following the links below:

Definition of the German Institutional / Commercial Actors

Definition of the US American Institutional / Commercial Actors


Step 2: Explore and classify the issue network of the institutional / commercial players using the tool "Issue Crawler"

The output will be an issue network which will allow us to see if the networks are still nationally oriented and see which types of actors that are central in the networked structure.


Step 3: Create list of keywords

The list of keywords represent visions of the future of ´Synthetic Biology´ and we ended up with 15 keywords that are central to the controversy. This list was sourced via triangulation from supposedly neutral boundary institutions that works with social aspects of synthetic biology by gathering different stakeholders in order to get an overview of the issue. We chose words that were short and specific in order to get a useful output.The keywords were then translated into German by conducting an issue language check by Google queries for German translation of keywords

The boundary institutions browsed for visions were, The Danish Board of Technology, The Norwegian Bord of Technology, The Rathenau, Institute, POST, The Synthetic Biology Project, The Hastings Center, The Initiative for Science, Society and Policy & The Center for Synthetic Biology at University of Groninge. Besides that Wikipedia was browsed.

The final list of keywords look like this:


Biofuel --> Biobenzin

Sustainable Energy --> regenerative / erneuerbare Energie

Biosensor --> Biosensor

Bioremediation --> Bioremediation

Medicine --> Medizin

Diagnostics --> Diagnostik / Diagnose

Tumor --> Tumour

Silk proteins --> Seidenproteine

Bioterror / Bio-terror --> Bioterror / Bio-terror

Smallpox --> Pocken

Accident --> Unfall

Patent --> Patent

e.coli --> e.coli

God --> Gott


Step 4: Analyse resonance of keywords in the issue-networks using the tool "Google Scraper"

Method for the scraping:

a) For the US web we enter the cleaned sourceset in the URL box in the scraper and the cleaned list of english keywords in the bottom box of the scraper. For the German web we will divide the cleaned source list into english speaking URLs (English URLs were added to the german actors when running the issue crawl). We make two scrapes. One with the german keywords for the german language sites and one with the english keywords for the english speaking sites. The results of the keywords will be added to each other in order to get the final german results.

b) Whe getting the results back we will look at issue clouds to see the themes of visions emerging in the German and US web respectively and look at the source clouds to see whichh actors that commit themselves to specific visions. The classification o factortypes and themes will be an inductive endavour.



The German issue-network is visualized by the Issue-Crawler. The following link shows the network sb_de_full_links_2_2_rendering_09072010.pdf. Some interesting initial findings in the visualization is that:

a) The network is still very much oriented toward Germany and Europe even after crawling for links

b) The official funding agencies play a central role

c) There is a cluster of yellow and red dots at the bottom which seems to illustrates links between european NGO´s and german players. This coalition seems to indicate a cluster of actors that stands outside of the main debate and follow a different strategy. It will be interesting to see if they are semantically connected as well.

d) The seems to be the shortest way from this cluster to the main cluster around the funding agencies.

e) The University of Freiburg is the strong academic player in the network.


The US issue-network is visualized by the Issue-Crawler. The following link shows the network

Some interesting initial findings in the visualization is that:

a) The network is not divided into sub-clusters in the same way as the German.

b) The White House occupies a peripheral role

c) The is a central node in both networks. Other structural points of contact will emerge when we get the "inter-actor" crawl back!


Horst, M. (2005). Cloning sensations : Mass mediated articulation of social responses to controversial biotechnology. Public Understanding of Science, 14(2), 185-200.

Horst, M. (2008). The laboratory of public debate : Understanding the acceptability of stem cell research. Science and Public Policy, 35(3), 197-209.

Jasanoff, S. (2007). Designs on nature science and democracy in europe and the united states (New edition ed.). New Jersey:

Selin, C. L. (2006). Volatile visions : Transactions in anticipatory knowledge (1st ed.). Kbh.; Frederiksberg: Copenhagen Business School; distributed by: Samfundslitteratur.


Topic revision: r9 - 01 Mar 2011, RicardoAmaral
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