A politics of yeast? Saccharomyces cerevisiae, synthetic biology, and the Sc2.0 project
Furness, Walter W.
Yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) is an organism of significant interest to humans; for millennia, humans and yeast have collaborated on a variety of activities ranging from winemaking to brewing to baking (Money, 2018). Various species of yeast have also long been the subject of scientific study. Beginning in the 1970s and accelerating through the end of the 20th century, scientists have taken an acute interest in yeast’s potential to act as a “model organism” within the emerging discipline of synthetic biology (Dymond & Boeke, 2012; Langer, 2016). Those working “with” or “on” yeast in laboratory settings tend to apply engineering and design principles in an attempt to elicit desirable genetic outcomes from yeast cells. This epistemic and methodological orientation emphasizes control and a faith in the ability of humans to beneficially manipulate other organisms at the most granular levels. At the same time, these scientists recognize yeast’s vitality and “personality” in their work (Calvert & Szymanski, 2020). Yeast’s agential status in laboratory assemblages suggests opportunities for thinking across both whole-genome engineering and the “microbial turn” in the social sciences, in which microbes are increasingly recognized as significant components of multispecies assemblages (Paxson & Helmreich, 2014; Szymanski, 2018a). In this dissertation I explore the development of the first synthetic yeast, Sc2.0, which will also be the first fully synthetic eukaryotic organism. I trace part of the assemblage of actors, technologies, relationships, funds, and knowledge that constitute an emergent scientific imaginary of the present and future and outline how this assemblage has congealed over time and through the efforts of these many agents. This research centers on the Boeke Lab at New York University’s Langone Health medical center, as this laboratory has been a sort of epicenter for the synthetic yeast project. Employing a qualitative approach, I draw upon participant observation, textual analysis, and interviews of scientists working with S. cerevisiae in this lab to interrogate the politics and dimensions of yeast-human interactions in the Sc2.0 project. In contrast to this setting, I also conducted interviews and observation at a small yeast lab in San Antonio, Texas with a very different set of priorities and goals. Situated at the intersection of political ecology, science and technology studies, and more-than-human geographies, this work seeks to politicize the use of yeast as an object of scientific research, specifically examining the metaphors and language that shape present and future possibilities for humanity’s relationships with other organisms. This work brings together and builds upon existing academic studies of the rapidly evolving field of synthetic biology and follows the late stages of the Sc2.0 project as it nears completion. My analysis contextualizes how synthetic biologists think about and talk about the organisms they work with and highlights the ways in which scientists use language to normalize and enforce specific understandings of yeasts—and, by extension, microbes in general. Synthetic biologists employ a set of metaphors that reshape scientific practice and work across tensions between commodification and democratization of genetic material. Microbial labor is invoked and masked in these assemblages, and material and semiotic relationships are contested and negotiated despite control-oriented rhetoric. Results gesture away from totalizing narratives that portray yeast as either completely passive or autonomous and toward a more contingent relationship in which spatial context, metaphors, and assumptions matter. From these observations, I propose a cosmopolitics of synthetic yeast that accounts for the processual making of synthetic life and the mutual co-constitution of knowledge about and power over lively, multispecies relations.
yeast, synthetic biology, science and technology studies, political ecology, more-than-human geographies
Furness, W. W. (2023). A politics of yeast? Saccharomyces cerevisiae, synthetic biology, and the Sc2.0 project (Unpublished dissertation). Texas State University, San Marcos, Texas.