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Biosocieties. 2013 Sep;8(3):311-335.

Left to their own devices: Post-ELSI, ethical equipment and the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Competition.

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  • 1Department of Sociology, University of Manchester , Arthur Lewis Building, Oxford Road, Manchester, M13 9PL, UK .


In this article, we evaluate a novel method for post-ELSI (ethical, legal and social implications) collaboration, drawing on 'human practices' (HP) to develop a form of reflexive ethical equipment that we termed 'sociotechnical circuits'. We draw on a case study of working collaboratively in the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition (iGEM) and relate this to the parts-based agenda of synthetic biology. We use qualitative methods to explore the experience of undergraduate students in the Competition, focussing on the 2010 University of Sheffield team. We examine how teams work collaboratively across disciplines to produce novel microorganisms. The Competition involves a HP component and we examine the way in which this has been narrowly defined within the ELSI framework. We argue that this is a much impoverished style of HP when compared with its original articulation as the development of 'ethical equipment'. Inspired by this more theoretically rich HP framework, we explore the relations established between team members and how these were shaped by the norms, materials and practices of the Competition. We highlight the importance of care in the context of post-ELSI collaborations and report on the implications of our case study for such efforts and for the relation of the social sciences to the life sciences more generally.


collaboration; human practices; iGEM; interdisciplinarity; post-ELSI; synthetic biology

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