Today more than ever, biotech is not limited to the laboratory. Discussions have moved from feasibility and incremental advances to safety concerns, leapfrog innovation and the constant struggle between utopian and dystopian tech-enabled scenarios. As not only a science but an art of making, synthetic biology has made its presence known loud and clear not only by directly impacting lives but as a day to day concern even for the layman.
How is the synthetic biology community taking the mantle of communicator, the responsibility of the critic and the vision of the philosopher?
Jesús Ciriza Larraona, Colours of nature
The Colours of Nature is one of the very few fully natural dyeing companies globally. Founded by Jesús Ciriza, the Indian-based company focuses on environmentally friendly vegetable dyeing processes, and collaborates with fashion giants such as Levi’s. The company’s star product is an ecological indigo dye based on fermentation at a certain key temperature and water pH range, so carefully determined that it allows for a full reutilization of said water. “We don’t throw the water away, it’s possible to re-utilize the same water for years. We’ve been using the same for over 10 years” says Ciriza in an interview with Noticias de Navarra. According to an interview with Levi’s, when he was announced as one of the Collaboratory Fellows for the brand, the inspiration for this optimal utilization of water came from a journey to India that Ciriza took over twenty years ago, where he could see firsthand the environmental impact of dyeing rugs in the surrounding rivers.
“As I had also seen industries destroy rivers where I grew up in Spain, at this point I decided to try to find alternatives for the chemical dyes being used. Naturally, I looked to the ancient traditions of natural dyes, for craftsmen and industries alike. […] For me, [creating a more socially and environmentally responsible apparel industry] both go hand in hand, as the pollution of the industry also, in many cases, affects those who work in it, by polluting local aquifers. Whilst protecting the environment is the reason we are in business, we are also focused on improving conditions for workers. Exploitation of workers in the textile industry in developing countries can make it impossible for workers to lead dignified lives, in turn limiting their choices and power to create a sustainable future. So again, for us, social and environmental responsibilities go hand in hand.”
Tom Knight, Ginkgo Bioworks
Ginkgo Bioworks is known worldwide as one of the leaders of the synthetic biology industry. Their work as enablers of rapid prototyping at a microorganism level has garnered them multiple alliances and partnerships throughout the field, and their pioneering work in bio-foundries has enabled impressive scaling and optimization of novel functional cultures. As the company states, they are looking to “replace technology with biology.”
Tom Knight, Cofounder for the company and synbio powerhouse, is the one grounding this vision and making sure biology is the next worldbuilding technology. Originally a computer scientist himself, Knight declared recently in an interview with Forbes that Moore’s Law is dead, and we have already squeezed all the information that we can out of semiconductors. So the question Knight asked his students and himself back at MIT was “What’s next? What do you do about the fact that the core technology, which is the basis of high performance computing, is coming to an end?”
That’s what got him thinking about biochemistry and biology as the next logical steps to replace our silicon-based models. Says Knight to Forbes, “I decided that if I was going to be relevant as a technologist going forward, that I needed to know about this. Not in a peripheral way, but a deep way. And at that point, I took a right hand turn technically, and essentially became a graduate student in biology.”
Tom Knight went on to build a molecular biology laboratory at the MIT computer science department, develop standards for engineering biological systems based in his previous life in computer science (such as the BioBrick standard), co-founded the iGEM competition, and eventually co-founded Ginkgo Bioworks in 2008.
Oliver Morton, The Economist
Before coming to The Economist as their energy and environment editor in 2009, Morton was the chief news and features editor for Nature. Now as The Economist’s briefings editor, Morton focuses on energy business and climate science and policy, and his broader interests as a science writer have garnered him many publications in outlets such as The Independent, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Wired and The American Scholar, for which he won the American Astronomical Society’s 2004 David N. Schramm Award for High Energy Astrophysics Science Journalism. He even has an asteroid named after him (Asteroid 10716 Olivermorton, if you were curious).
He has authored three books with topics ranging from astrophysics to photosynthesis, and now has explored the field of Geoengineering in “The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World”. The book explores the application of deliberate technological interventions in the climate: interventions meant to cool the planet. Geoengineering, explains Morton, has too long been regarded as a merely theoretical branch of science, confined to models and speculation. The possibilities that conscious climate intervention measures can enable cannot be ignored any further. When asked about geoengineering’s prospects in the coming decades in an interview for Pacific Standard, Morton reminds us that what tech can do is not just about science itself, but about the values and impact it commands. “What I hope to see happen in my lifetime,” states Morton, “is that there is a serious discussion about realizing geoengineering in some sort of safe, just, and governable form as an additional response to climate change. If it can’t be made safe, just, and governable to any satisfactory degree (all those adjectives have gradations) then I don’t want to see it.”
Jane Calvert, University of Edinburgh
Jane Calvert is an interdisciplinary at heart. With an undergraduate degree in Human Sciences from Sussex and an MSc in the History and Philosophy of Science from the London School of Economics, this University of Edinburgh lecturer did her doctoral work at the Science Policy Research Unit at University of Sussex. She worked as a research fellow at the ESRC Centre for Genomics in Society (Egenis) and a member of the Royal Academy of Engineering’s working party on Synthetic Biology, the UK Synthetic Biology Roadmap Coordination Group, the Hastings Center Working Group on Ethical Issues in Synthetic Biology and the Nuffield Council of Bioethics Working Party on Emerging Biotechnologies.
Her current research focuses on emergence, development and epistemic aspirations in synthetic biology, specifically in attempts to engineer new living things. She co-authored the paper “What can science and technology studies learn from art and design? Reflections on ‘Synthetic Aesthetics’”, published in Social Studies of Science, Sage Journals, last December. In it, she describes the project embarked in 2009, where synthetic biologists were paired with artists and designers to observe their collaboration and interaction, and to see what social scientists working in science can extract from the mix. The paper concludes with the coining of “emerging critique” in collaboration with artists and designers to enrich social scientific work: “We are calling this an ‘emergent’ form of critique is because it is necessarily co-produced. It is not the result of one group imposing their critical tools and perspectives, but is the outcome of a shared endeavour that brings people together from different disciplines. What is generated is thus more than (and different from) anything that could result from a single discipline. This relates to our discussion of ‘making’ above, because if what is important is what emerges from these shared collaborative endeavours, then it becomes less relevant who is a ‘maker’ and who is not.”
Oron Catts, SymbioticA
SymbioticA is the Centre of Excellence in Biological Arts, within the School of Anatomy and Human Biology in the University of Western Australia. First of its kind, Symbiotica describes itself as an artistic laboratory that enables artists and researchers to engage in the practice of biology in order to foster a better understanding and articulation of cultural ideas around scientific knowledge, while also generating informed critique of ethical and cultural issues related to one of synthetic biology’s hottest topics: life manipulation. SymbioticA’s research areas include the interaction of art and biology, art and ecology, bioethics, neuroscience, tissue engineering and sleep science.
The laboratory will be represented by Oron Catts, director of SymbioticA. Catts is an artist, researcher and curator. He established the Tissue Culture and Art Project in 1996, now one of the main research areas of the Centre, specialized in in-vitro growth and manipulation of living tissue in three dimensions. One of its projects: Victimless leather. A lesser-known one: the first (albeit untested) lab-grown meat, before Mark Post’s laboratory burger was grown at the University of Maastricht in 2013.
Catts Co-founded SymbioticA in 2000, and the Centre has since gone on to win the Prix Ars Electronica Golden Nica in Hybrid Art (2007) the WA Premier Science Award (2008) and became a Centre for Excellence in 2008. Catts was also a Research Fellow in Harvard Medical School, a visiting Scholar at the Department of Art and Art History, Stanford University, and a Visiting Professor of Design Interaction, Royal College of Arts, London. His work focuses on the need for new cultural articulation of evolving concepts of life: the shift in perception required to accommodate new knowledge and its applications.
Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Studio Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg
A designer, artist and writer, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg has been working in synthetic biology since 2008. She also happens to be one of the design fellows that participated in fellow session speaker Jane Calvert’s Synthetic Aesthetics. Daisy researches design’s aesthetic and ethical future collaborating not only with designers and galleries, but also with scientists and engineers.
Besides her work as a curator for the publication of Synthetic Aesthetics, Daisy led the curatorial team for “Grow Your Own… Life After Nature,” a flagship Wellcome-funded exhibition about synthetic biology at Science Gallery in Dublin showcased between 2013 and 2014. Her academic formation includes architecture at the University of Cambridge, design at Harvard University and a design interactions MA at the Royal College of Art. Her interface between art and science comes from years of collaborations in synthetic biology, where she has positioned herself as a synthesizer for both unlikely areas. About the future of this interaction, Daisy says in an interview with Next Nature: “Synthetic biology is already on the road to industrialization and commercialization. Art and design can be amongst many tools that we use to ask, “is this right?” or, “are we setting things up in the best way?” Synthetic biology includes many ideological areas as well as technical ones, from the ownership of a technology to the foundation of new kinds of communities around a technology. What we can own and patent in our biological future – from biological parts, sequences of DNA, to bigger devices – is a crucial discussion that all of society should be part of. Art and design can be useful tools to contribute to, and open up, these bigger discussions around ethical legal, social implications, both for the field and beyond, and in that way, perhaps help us influence the path of progress.”
Mark your calendar, and get ready to broaden your vision of synthetic biology through the most unlikely disciplines: SB7.0’s third session, Art, critical design, critique, our world, will take place at 4:00 pm in June 13.