PhD researcher: Synthetic cells and sustainability: a philosophical assessment

Updated: 3 months ago
Job Type: Temporary
Deadline: 16 Oct 2022


In view of the contemporary challenges we are facing (e.g. climate change, mass extinction and ecological disruption) we need to develop new technologies that are attuned to nature and sustainable, both from an ecological and from a societal perspective. Bottom-up synthetic biology is an emerging research field that aims at understanding how cells work by reconstructing their molecular processes and ultimately integrating them in a synthetic cell. The knowledge gained will allow the development of new technologies based on mimicking cellular processes. Therefore, this PhD project is how to ensure that synthetic cell research may contribute to the development of sustainable biotechnologies.

The PhD project will be part of the BASYC (“Building a synthetic cell”) project, a Dutch national research programme funded through a Gravitation grant by OCW/NWO. BaSyC proposes to build a synthetic cell from the bottom-up, to elucidating the intricate working of cellular life. At the same time, this endeavour raises fascinating philosophical questions. This PhD project explores how BaSyC contribute future technologies that foster sustainability and societal equality. Based on the recommendations by the BaSyC future panel, resulting in the Position Paper “Society and Synthetic Cells”, the project will address three objectives:

1. Ensure that the synthetic cell contributes to the sustainability transition

The synthetic cell may contribute to the development of technologies which are sustainable and bio-compatible rather than disruptive, provided this type of research becomes part of a broader transition which involves cultural, political, and normative dimensions as well, i.e., a technology that is guided by respect for nature.

2. Organize societal participation in synthetic cell research

Establishing, regaining, and maintaining public trust in science requires genuine and sincere participation of civil society in scientific research in such a way that it may have important consequences for future developments in research and society. In order to ensure that synthetic cell technologies become sustainable rather than disruptive, an inclusive and participatory process of reflection is required, open to public intelligence, and sensitive to expectations and concerns.

3. Set up a platform for the interaction between researchers and societal stakeholders

Organize a platform for formal and informal communication in which researchers and societal stakeholders may participate from the beginning of the research process. Meetings with societal stakeholders should be organized on relevant issues at different moments of the project and should be designed as interstices: in-between spaces in which different meanings, interests and societal values come together and are explicated.

The PhD project is a collaboration between Kavli Institute of Nanoscience at Delft Technical University Delft (Prof. Dr. Marileen Dogterom), the Erasmus School of Philosophy at Erasmus University Rotterdam (Prof. Dr. Hub Zwart). The PhD researcher will be appointed at TU Delft while the PhD defence will take place at EUR.


  • Assess synthetic cell research from a philosophy of science and philosophy of technology perspective, building on concepts such as biomimicry, sustainability, and open science.
  • Co-organise a panel of scientific and societal experts concerning the question how to ensure that the synthetic cell will contribute to sustainability
  • Present results at academic conferences and public meetings
  • Publish results in academic journals
  • Engage in societal debates
  • Write a thesis.

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