Learning to love our 'monsters'

ASU’s Emma Frow wins National Science Foundation award to explore the concept of care at the frontier of synthetic biology

September 22, 2021

Science fiction and fantasy stories are often filled with scientists who go too far. The most enduring trope for this kind of hubris is “Frankenstein.” It’s both the most famous monster story and the most misunderstood.

Bruno Latour, a renowned sociologist of science, has written that the terror of this tale is not the act of creation; it’s the consequence of abandonment. He points out that all new technologies are flawed, and they need sustained care to improve them. It’s not that Dr. Frankenstein went too far — he didn’t go far enough. Artistic illustration of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster in a laboratory. The horror of the Frankenstein story was neglect. If the infamous scientist had offered responsible care to his creation, this tale might have been one of triumph instead of terror. In the real world, biofoundry facilities are engineering organisms that can synthesize products ranging from cosmetics to fertilizers. Are their creators considering the care they apply to their innovation? Assistant Professor Emma Frow is studying the practice of care and governance in a rapidly evolving industry that is literally engineering life. Image courtesy of Shutterstock Download Full Image

“Latour calls on scientists and engineers to cultivate a different kind of relationship with their work,” said Emma Frow, an assistant professor in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and the College of Global Futures at Arizona State University. “The word ‘care’ applies here, but more in the sense of governance than as something emotional. How do you ‘care' for your ideas and innovations once they leave the lab and enter the complex, dynamic world we live in?”

Frow says parenting may offer a good analogy: It’s a long-term project. How do you best engage? When do you back off? What end are you seeking? She admits that this relational mindset is not always visible in science, where the prevailing perspective of praxis is the disinterested revelation of objective truth.

“And yet recent years have made it increasingly clear that science and engineering are complex endeavors that involve choices and debate,” she said. “Acknowledging that is really important. It gives us an opportunity to examine what we do and how we do it in order to make our work better.”

Frow came to ASU in 2015 as both a social scientist and a biochemist with a longstanding interest in synthetic biology. She did so because of the university’s reputation for fostering innovation with societal relevance. She says that mission makes ASU a leading institution for studying the actual practice of science and engineering from multiple vantages — including attitudes to responsibility and care.

Frow believes that scientists and engineers in the field of synthetic biology are particularly open to discussing questions of care and responsibility in their work. So, she’s pursuing these conversations in a set of emerging facilities called biofoundries.

portrait of ASU Assistant Professor

Emma Frow

“Biofoundries are trying to develop new technologies and business models for high-throughput biomanufacturing,” she said. “They are spaces of great innovation, which means they’re also making all kinds of design choices that could prove very consequential to the future of biotechnology and society. I think it’s important to pay attention to what’s going on in these sites and also to promote lively, interdisciplinary exchange and active consideration of the futures that are being shaped in these facilities.”

Exploring care and governance in the context of the emerging biofoundry industry is the focus of research Frow is conducting within the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering, one of the seven Fulton Schools, as well as at ASU’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society. Her novel efforts have secured a 2021 National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) Award.

CAREER Award recognition is reserved for young researchers who show the potential to be academic role models and advance the missions of their organizations. Awardees receive approximately half a million dollars over five years to further their highlighted research.

Frow’s project has three components. The first is qualitative ethnographic study of the work underway within biofoundry facilities.

“I’m going to spend at least three months in each of two sites,” she said. “One is a commercial facility on the East Coast, and the other is an academic facility on the West Coast. I’ll also conduct shorter visits at several other biofoundries across the country. And I’ll be interviewing people working in many different roles at each of these sites.”

The second part of the project will study the bigger political economy in which biofoundries operate. This aspect involves interviewing investors, regulators and others from related fields such as industrial chemistry, pharmaceuticals and genetic engineering.

“Those first two parts are absolutely doable,” Frow said. “They will tell us a lot about contemporary biofoundries. But the third part of this project is more experimental. It will draw on all of the fieldwork to design interventions or tools that can help attune practitioners to the politics of care and responsibility, and shape the governance of these foundries.”

She says this will be an interdisciplinary effort involving scientists and engineers, but also social scientists, humanists, designers and even science fiction authors. There’s a great deal of speculation about the future of biological engineering, but the need for a culture of commitment seems clear.

“As Latour writes, how do you actually care for or love the monsters that you create?” Frow said. “How do you engage with your innovations in order to wrestle with the problems that you didn’t anticipate, and ultimately build better futures?”

Gary Werner

Senior Media Relations Officer, Media Relations and Strategic Communications


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ASU researcher chosen to be a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator

September 23, 2021

Biodesign Institute scientist John McCutcheon the first at ASU to earn the position, which comes with roughly $9M over seven years

For the first time, an Arizona State University researcher has been selected as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Investigator. HHMI, a nonprofit research organization, announced today that biologist John McCutcheon is one of 33 scientists chosen for this prestigious position in 2021.

The HHMI Investigator program currently supports over 250 researchers at more than 60 research institutions across the U.S. With the new cohort of researchers, the organization is investing an additional $300 million in the program. Each new investigator will receive roughly $9 million over a seven-year term, which is renewable pending a successful scientific review. This funding model allows HHMI researchers to focus on their science.

“Being selected as an HHMI Investigator is an incredible honor. The flexibility and stability of HHMI funding is unique in American science, and it will allow my lab to pursue difficult, long-term work that is nearly impossible with traditional funding mechanisms. It’s incredibly exciting,” said McCutcheon, associate director of the ASU Biodesign Center for Mechanisms of Evolution and a professor with the School of Life Sciences.

“To truly tackle the world’s greatest challenges, researchers need to be empowered to explore, experiment and uncover truths about our world,” said Sally C. Morton, executive vice president of Knowledge Enterprise at ASU. “This kind of scientific freedom is both an incredible luxury and responsibility. Dr. McCutcheon is well-equipped to translate this generous opportunity into concrete progress in our understanding of nature and our place in it.”

McCutcheon studies bacteria with a complicated living arrangement: They reside within the cells of sap-eating insects called mealybugs, where they provide nutrients that the insects can’t make themselves or get from food. In return, the insects supply materials the bacteria can’t make on their own.

He is exploring this partnership to better understand events that occurred more than a billion years ago. Back when all life was single-celled, one cell engulfed another and struck up a relationship that eventually gave rise to mitochondria — internal energy plants that power organisms from yeast to humans. Millions of years later, a different cell took in a photosynthetic bacterium, eventually leading to chloroplasts – an essential step in the evolution of plants and algae.

“We study how bacteria infect animal cells and become near-permanent, long-term parts of these cells. Our hope is that some of this work will help us better understand how the mitochondria and chloroplasts came to be, and how they function today,” said McCutcheon.

Symbiotic relationships between insects and intracellular bacteria might represent an in-between stage of this transformation. The bacteria McCutcheon studies have tiny genomes. He has found that they rely on proteins made by their mealybug hosts, which has enabled them to downsize their DNA. This parallels the import of cellular materials into chloroplasts or mitochondria, which have tiny genomes of their own. As McCutcheon looks for clues to the evolutionary past within this long-standing symbiotic relationship, he is also exploring newer insect-bacteria partnerships, hoping to learn how organisms adapt as symbioses become established.

“The research that Dr. McCutcheon is involved in has the potential to provide critical insights into important biological processes,” said Joshua LaBaer, executive director of the Biodesign Institute at ASU. “These insights could help deliver new innovations to improve human health. We are thrilled that he has been chosen for this exciting and important endeavor.”

“HHMI is committed to giving outstanding biomedical scientists the time, resources and freedom they need to explore uncharted scientific territory,” said HHMI President Erin O’Shea. By employing scientists as HHMI Investigators, rather than awarding them research grants, she says, the institute is guided by the principle of "people, not projects."

To date, 32 current or former HHMI scientists have won the Nobel Prize. Investigators have made significant contributions across many research areas, including HIV vaccine development, microbiome and circadian rhythm research, immunotherapy, SARS-CoV-2 biology and potential therapies and vaccines for COVID-19.

McCutcheon was chosen from more than 800 eligible applicants. He earned his PhD in computational biology from Washington University, an MS in human genetics from the University of Utah and a BS in biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Among many honors, McCutcheon is a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and he earned a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE).

Top photo: Professor John McCutcheon is the first researcher at Arizona State University to be named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Investigator. This program provides each investigator with roughly $9 million in support over a seven-year term.

Sandra Leander

Assistant Director of Media Relations , ASU Knowledge Enterprise