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Working with bacteria and putting bacteria to work: The biopolitics of synthetic biology for energy in the United Kingdom

McLeod, Carmen; Nerlich, Brigitte; Mohr, Alison


Carmen McLeod

Brigitte Nerlich

Alison Mohr


The UK government has made significant investment into so called ‘fourth-generation’ biofuel technologies. These biofuels are based on engineering the metabolic pathways of bacteria in order to create products compatible with existing infrastructure. Bacteria play an important role in what is promoted as a potentially new biological industrial revolution, which could address some of the negative environmental legacies of the last. This article presents results from ethnographic research with synthetic biologists who are challenged with balancing the curiosity-driven and intrinsically fulfilling scientific task of working with bacteria, alongside the policy-driven task of putting bacteria to work for extrinsic economic gains. In addition, the scientists also have to balance these demands with a new research governance framework, Responsible Research and Innovation, which envisions technoscientific innovation will be responsive to societal concerns and work in collaboration with stakeholders and members of the public. Major themes emerging from the ethnographic research revolve around stewardship, care, responsibility and agency. An overall conflict surfaces between individual agents assuming responsibility for ‘stewarding’ bacteria, against funding systems and structures imposing responsibility for economic growth. We discuss these findings against the theoretical backdrop of a new concept of ‘energopolitics’ and an anthropology of ethics and responsibility.


McLeod, C., Nerlich, B., & Mohr, A. (2017). Working with bacteria and putting bacteria to work: The biopolitics of synthetic biology for energy in the United Kingdom. Energy Research and Social Science, 30, 35-42.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Jun 6, 2017
Online Publication Date Jun 26, 2017
Publication Date Aug 30, 2017
Deposit Date Jul 5, 2017
Journal Energy Research & Social Science
Electronic ISSN 2214-6296
Publisher Elsevier
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 30
Pages 35-42
Keywords Synthetic biology, Bioeconomy, Biopolitics, Responsible research and innovation
Public URL
Publisher URL


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