Life sciences experienced three major revolutions since 20th century, from the cellular and molecular biology in 1960s, genomics and systematic biology after 2000 to the convergence biological science, which was represented by SynBio. It has evolved over a huge spectrum of interdisciplinary continuum which includes life science branches such as biochemistry, microbiology, molecular biology, systematic biology, and non-life science branches like computer sciences and engineering sciences. Consequently, there is no wildly accepted definition of SynBio yet. For the scientists in bioengineering field, SynBio is defined as “the engineering-driven building of increasingly complex biological entities for novel applications” . Luis Serrano (2007) put forward that a group of European experts defined SynBio together as “the engineering of biology: the synthesis of complex, biologically based (or inspired) systems, which display functions that do not exist in nature”, and distinguished SynBio from Systems Biology by ‘engineering’ and ‘synthesis of novel functions’. Meanwhile, in David Gilbert (2010)’s definition, the top-bottom and bottom-top approaches of SynBio research were emphasized. In current research, we agreed that SynBio can be defined as “the design and construction of novel biological parts, devices and systems, as well as the redesign of existing natural biological systems, for useful purposes” (Roberts et al. 2013), and Gómez-Tatay and Hernández-Andreu (2019) also stressed several features of SynBio including “aims to the creation of something fundamentally new, biological parts or systems not otherwise found in nature”. This definition distinguishes SynBio from other biological disciplines clearly by the novelty of productions which brings about uncertainty in ethical issues and biosafety and biosecurity concerns, so as to catch the attention of sociologists, ethicists and stakeholders.
The world has witnessed many breakthroughs in many fields, such as biomedicine and energy industry with SynBio’s support [2, 3]. The heterologous production of precursors to artemisinin— a widely used antimalarial drug was realized with engineered yeast in 2006, demonstrating enormous potential of SynBio in Biomedicine (Ro et al. 2006). SynBio are used to design DNA-based information storage and communication and processing systems for genetic coding[4, 5]. In industry, engineered microbial cells were used for biofuel production . Generally, SynBio works as a game-changer for its tremendous potentials.
However, despite all the benefits it brings to human beings, SynBio also comes with risks and concerns as a dual-use research. SynBio’s products are non-natural artificial life with endogenous uncertainty. Before its emergence, human beings have no experience or knowledge of its existence and nature, and this product itself may have the possibility of self-reproduction and genetic evolution, which could magnify the uncertainty dramatically. This uncertainty itself implies biosafety and biosecurity risks that could cause harm to human beings, organisms or living environment, and leads to psychological and cognitive risks at the individual and social levels, as well as other significant impacts on human society. Therefore, SynBio has also become the research object in humanities and social sciences, attracting wide attention from researchers and stakeholders in philosophy and ethics, policy and laws, science communication and public understanding, and intellectual property. As ethical concerns, SynBio arouse us to think about the intrinsic value of life (Link 2013), the dignity of life, integrity of nature, and the relationship between God and his creation (Heavy 2013). Meanwhile, the novelty of SynBio undermined the feasibility of previous policies or laws for biological or bioengineering practices, and appealing to new governance methods and ethical regulations. Some researchers concerned about SynBio from the public opinion view, and tested the relationship more information and deliberation and public support (Kronberger et al. 2012). Besides, the intellectual property and commercialization of SynBio have also become important research areas and issues for sociologists . All these demonstrate that SynBio has impacted greatly on the humanities and social sciences researches, and would further spread to human society globally.
Meanwhile, in the context of the great influence of global pandemics such as COVID-19, HINI, SARS and MERS on people , the public's concern about the development of novel biotechnology will be magnified significantly. Thus, in the post-COVID-19 era, SynBio, the revolutionary discipline and technology, can encounter new possible risks and obstacles in the development, which consequently hinders the world from the possible solutions and benefits that SynBio might offer and leaves less hope for human beings. It is time to reconsider the sociological and philosophical barriers to the development of SynBio, in order to provide more opportunities for SynBio to benefit and help people.
Therefore, it is necessary to systematically review and summarize the researches in humanities and social sciences of SynBio, and elaborate the intellectual bases (the knowledge origin of current collected literatures, usually exists as references) and research fronts (the dominant research themes of collected literatures, can be extracted from the keywords and titles of the literatures) of this field, so as to provide some reference for the future research on the public understanding, ethics and governance of SynBio. Some studies have attempted to review the natural science progress of SynBio, or argued on partial aspects of its social sciences so far. For instance, Shapira (2017) reviewed the SynBio researches in the sphere of natural sciences and gave the practical definition and conceptual boundary of SynBio in the study, which helped a lot for collecting the regarding literatures. Hayry (2017) elaborated the ethical concerns related to SynBio and its relatedness to Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO). Similarly, Patrick Heavey (2017) underlined the moral perspective, integrity of nature, and essence of spirituality .
However, there is few research that has hitherto reviewed the entire pool of social sciences literatures of SynBio, instead of the natural sciences ones. In consideration of the huge amounts of research articles for review, traditional review are either unable to avoid bias, subjectivity and incompleteness, or time-consuming and lack of the diversity of analysis methods . Therefore, in current research we introduce bibliometric methods, co-word analysis, co-citation analysis and some other algorithms to analyze the literatures systematically and holistically, and utilize knowledge mapping and visualization technology to provide intuitive and comprehensible insights and conclusions. Specifically, a set of favorable bibliometric software such as Citespace and VOSviewer are used for analyzing.
Above all, the current study aims to solve the following questions:
Research Question 1 (RQ1): Generally, how does the literatures distribution look like? It’s about to illustrate the yearly growth status, the distribution of literatures on country and institution level, and the dominant research areas of all regarding literatures.
RQ2: What is the intellectual bases of this area?
RQ3: What are the research hotspots in this research area?
RQ4: What are the potential research trends of SynBio social science studies?