Syn Bio Workshop Glossary

Anticipation - a category of futures work that directs attention to the individual and societal capacity for engaging with the future.1

Anticipatory governance - “a broad-based capacity extended through society that can act on a variety of inputs to manage emerging knowledge-based technologies while such management is still possible.”2

Amicus curiae - “(literally "friend of the court") is someone who is not a party to a case, who offers information that bears on the case but who has not been solicited by any of the parties to assist a court.”3

Bio-economies - “economic activity powered by research and innovation in the biosciences.”4

Biogeochemical cycling - “pathway by which a chemical substance moves through both biotic (biosphere) and abiotic (lithosphere, atmosphere, and hydrosphere) compartments of Earth”5

Bio-hacking (Institutionalized, subversive, industrial) - the practice of engaging biology with the hacker ethic with the main points of access, freedom for information. 6Institutionalized: in leading institutions such as MIT. Subversive: out of the institutions and in the form of citizen science (DIY bio). Industrial: in biotech companies.

Bio-informatics - “the creation and advancement of databases, algorithms, computational and statistical techniques, and theory to solve formal and practical problems arising from the management and analysis of biological data.”7

Bio-mining - process of using microorganism to mine for specific minerals.

Co-construct - to create (knowledge) collaboratively.

Codon - “a unit that consists of three adjacent bases on a DNA molecule and that determines the position of a specific amino acid in a protein molecule during protein synthesis.”8

Contained-use - “activities involving GMOs in which control measures (applying physical containment) are used to limit the GMO’s contact with humans and environment.”9

Decision-science - an interdisciplinary approach to decision-making that combines mathematical formulae, behavioral sciences, business models, and technological applications to produce quantitative output.

Deliberative democracy - “a form of democracy in which deliberation is central to decision-making. It adopts elements of both consensus decision-making and majority rule.”10

Discourse institutionalism - an approach to understanding institutional change in which cognitive and normative ideas related to policies, programs, and philosophies are the substantive content of discourse.11

Dual-use - the development of knowledge and technologies that can be used both for good and nefarious purposes.12

Ecology of practices -  “practices can be understood as living things, and that they are interdependent with other practices to which they are connected in ‘ecologies of practices.’” 13An ecology of practices can be made by describing the practices, like in natural ecology, not in general terms, but in quite specific terms on how each diverges from the others. 14

ELSI - abbreviation for Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications.

Enculturation in laboratory - the process by which an individual learns the traditional content of a culture and assimilates its practices and values15

Fatty acyl-CoA - yeast fatty acid synthase

iGEM - abbreviation for the international Genetically Engineered Machines Competition, “the premiere undergraduate Synthetic Biology competition. Student teams are given a kit of biological parts at the beginning of the summer from the Registry of Standard Biological Parts.”16

Highly engineered metabolic pathways - modified regulation of a cell’s processes to dramatically increase that cell’s production of a particular substance.

Horizontal gene transfer - “the movement of genetic material between bacteria other than by descent in which information travels through the generations as the cell divides.”17

Intergeneric hybrid - an organism bred with genetic material from multiple genera (such as sheep and goats).

Metabolically synthesize – producing a substance by enhancing or altering the metabolic processes within a cell.

Neo-institutional theory - “theoretical perspectives used to understand organizational behavior as situated in and influenced by other organizations and wider social forces—especially broader cultural rules and beliefs.” 18

Non-state actors - “an individual or organization that has significant political influence but is not allied to any particular country or state.”19

Pathogenic organisms - an organism capable of causing disease in its host20

Pathogen’s virulence – ability of the pathogen to cause disease.21

Photobioreactor system - “an installation for the production of microorganisms outside their natural but inside an artificial environment. The prefix “photo” particularly describes the bio-reactor's property to cultivate phototrophic microorganisms.”22

Phototrophic organism - one that uses the energy from light for to fuel its metabolic processes. 

Postnormal science - a concept developed by Silvio Funtowicz and Jerome Ravetz, attempting to characterize a methodology of inquiry that is appropriate for cases where "facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent" (Funtowicz and Ravetz, 1991). It is primarily applied in the context of long-term issues where there is less available information than is desired by stakeholders.23

Premanufacture notifications – a requirement of the Toxic Substances Control act whereby anyone who plans to manufacture (including import) a new chemical substance for a non-exempt commercial purpose must provide EPA with notice before initiating the activity. 24

Progenitor - a biologically ancestral form. 25

Proteomics - “the large-scale study of proteins, particularly their structures and functions.”26

Publics - “small groups of people who follow one or more particular issue very closely.”27

Quorum sensing - Many species of bacteria use quorum sensing to coordinate gene expression according to the density of their local population

Responsible research and innovation (RRI) - “a transparent, interactive process by which societal actors and innovators become mutually responsive to each other with a view to the (ethical) acceptability, sustainability and societal desirability of the innovation process and its marketable products in order to allow a proper embedding of scientific and technological advances in our society.”28

Situated knowledge - Situated knowledge is knowledge specific to a particular situation, which questions the traditional notion objectivity that one can objectively view or know something29

Scientometrics - “the quantitative study of science, communication in science, and science policy.”30

Socio-ecological-technical system - a system that includes people, organizational structures/processes/artifacts and environmental factors. 

Social constructivism - theory that humans construct knowledge and meaning from interactions between not only their own experiences and ideas, but also the experiences and ideas of others.

Socioecological relationship - the interaction between people (social) and the environment.

Sociotechnological relationship - the interaction between people (social) and organizational structures/processes/artifacts (technology).

Soil remediation - the process of cleaning and/or revitalizing contaminated soil.

Strong sustainability - Manufactured or human capital and natural capital are complementary. The existing natural capital must thus be maintained and enhanced because the functions it performs cannot be duplicated by manufactured capital31

Synthetic nucleic acid - completely new molecules capable of information storage just like DNA and RNA, dubbed xeno-nucleic acids, or XNAs.32

Technology assessment - the study and evaluation of technologies for possible impacts on societal, ethical or political systems

Ur-narrative - “a combining form meaning “earliest, original,” used in words denoting the primal stage of a historical or cultural entity or phenomenon.”33

Upstream engagement - deliberative methods of engagement with citizens and stakeholders (such as focus groups, citizen juries) to debate, contemplate, imagine about emerging technologies BEFORE major investment decisions are made.34

Weak sustainability – Manufactured or human capital of equal value can take the place of natural capital 35

Wild-type - “In genetics, the wild-type organisms serve as the original parent strain before a deliberate mutation is introduced (for research) so that geneticists can use them as reference to compare the naturally occurring genotypes and phenotypes of a given species against those of the deliberately mutated counterparts.”36

1Adapted version of the definition in Selin, C. “Scoping anticipation: a select review of futures research and education programs,” ASU Global Institute of Sustainability, 2011.
2Guston DH. (2008). Preface. In: Fisher E, Selin C and Wetmore JM (Eds). The Yearbook of Nanotechnology in Society: Presenting Futures, vol. 1. New York: Springer, pp. v-viii.
4 National Bioeconomy Blue Print Released, White House,
11 Schmidt, V.A. (2008) “Discursive Institutionalism: The Explanatory Power of Ideas and Discourse.” Annual Review of Political Science; (11) 303-326.
12 From the two page paper by Debra Mathews
13 Kemmis, Stephen, et al. "Ecologies of practices." Practice, learning and change. Springer Netherlands, 2012. 33-49.
14 Stengers, Isabelle. "Comparison as a matter of concern." Common Knowledge17.1 (2011): 48-63.
18 Lounsbury, M., Zhao, E.Y. Oxford Bibliographies. retrieved from view/document/obo-9780199846740/obo-9780199846740-0053.xml 
23 Funtowicz, S.O. and Jerome R. Ravetz (1991). "A New Scientific Methodology for Global Environmental Issues." In Ecological Economics: The Science and Management of Sustainability. Ed. Robert Costanza. New York: Columbia University Press: 137–152. See also: Funtowicz, Silvio O., and Jerome R. Ravetz. "Science for the post-normal age." Futures 25.7 (1993): 739-755; and
28 von Schomberg, R. in Owen, R; Heintz, M; Bessant, J, eds. "A vision of responsible innovation". Responsible Innovation (London: John Wiley).
30 Hess, D. J. (1997). Science Studies: An advanced introduction. New York: New York University Press
32 Sawyer, E. (2012). Synthetic Nucleic Acids: Beyond DNA ad RNA. Retrieved from:
34 The Social Life of Nanotechnology. (2012). Ed. B.H. Harthorn, and J.W.Mohr. Routledge: New York.

Collage Photo Credits

Top Row, left to right

Bottom Row, left to right

  • Frankenstein’s Monster (Boris Karloff), 1934, Public Domain, Wikipedia, (cropped)
  • Communities of Integration, 2013, CNS photo
  • Multipart BioBrick, Registry of Standard Biological Parts,
  • Artemisia annua, 2003, Scott Bauer, USDA Agricultural Research Service (cropped & changed to B & W)
  • A/CA/4/09 Swine Flu Virus, 2009, Public Domain, CDC/C. S. Goldsmith and A. Balish
  • CNS Board of Visitors Meeting, 2013, CNS photo