Microbial capacities for material transformation are increasingly mobilised to repair damaged ecologies at a range of scales. In synthetic biology and industrial biotechnology, the development of ‘microbial factories’ for the conversion of various feedstocks into materials, chemicals, fuels and food is heralded as a means of addressing climate change, reducing societal reliance on fossil resources, and creating circular bioeconomies. While social studies of synthetic biology have explored promissory discourses (e.g. Schyfter and Calvert, 2015) and factory metaphors (e.g. Boudry and Pigliucci, 2013), less attention has been paid to the potentially generative chemo-socio-material relations and resource-making enacted by microbial factories and their non-human labour.
This paper explores multispecies collaboration towards material, chemical, social and ecological transformation in the case of a European research project developing three new microbial factories in an integrated waste treatment platform in Italy. The researchers and companies involved aim to engineer microbes to (more efficiently) use carbon dioxide to produce value-added chemicals and bioplastics. Through the microbial labour of gas fermentation, waste gains worth as gas feedstocks are transformed into commercially valuable materials, fixing carbon and offering ‘sustainable’ chemical production and waste treatment processes.
Drawing on ethnographic engagement with this project, the paper opens up microbial factories to investigate the multi-scalar collaborations and transformations they (might) entail. It interrogates tensions between logics of biocapitalism and of industrial reparation, asking whether microbial factories are best understood as ecomodernist technofixes that lock in toxic regimes, or as the becoming ‘ecologically obliged’ (Papadopoulous, forthcoming) of waste treatment and chemical industries.
Eleanor Hadley Kershaw, "Multispecies Mending: Microbial Factories, Circular Bioeconomies, and Fermentation to Fix (the) Carbon (Cycle)", contributed by Duygu Kasdogan, STS Infrastructures, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 8 September 2021, accessed 26 March 2023. https://stsinfrastructures.org/content/multispecies-mending-microbial-factories-circular-bioeconomies-and-fermentation-fix-carbon
Abstract by Eleanor Hadley Kershaw, submitted to the 4S 2021 Panel Toxic Goodness: Harmful Legacies, Hopeful Futures