As the foundations of a 'synthetic' biology are built, how might designed life merge into our own? Where is the boundary between our things and our selves: the designed products that we consume, and our own bodies and identities? We imagine 'nature' as something untouched by human culture; synthetic biology may dissolve the divide, if it ever existed.+ read more ...
The works here include 'real' organisms, both unmodified and designed, and their fictional relatives. They all ask us to consider blurring species and even living kingdoms, and test where our limits lie: E. coli smells like banana to smell 'better' from a human perspective, cheese is made using bacteria collected from our bodies. As our bodies are infiltrated by designed life to meet our needs, animals are designed for human desires, and cities are hacked with architectural parasites. Is this a future where "we are what we eat", or "we eat what we are"? All of this takes place around the Community Biolab, where synthetic biologists and biohackers invite you to become implicated in the redesign of life.
Synthetic biology might change our understanding of design and nature, but it could also change the cultural and biological ecosystems we are part of. Synthetic biologists are engineering organisms, but they are also designing and agreeing the standards and the legal and commercial frameworks that underpin a new technology. Biology doesn't adhere to laws or country borders. Today, patented genetically modified organisms are already grown in many countries. Their tendency to spread or evolve has to be managed using laws and regulations.+ read more ...
Science and society together have to decide whether we need different rules for synthetic biology: from what can be owned to what can be put into the environment, to what new laws might be needed to control biology and human interests in it.
The artists and designers here use a wide range of approaches to open up questions about these interactions between science and society. Together, they make visible the difficult questions about biodiversity, conservation, intellectual property, corporate responsibility, privacy, piracy, politics, biological pollution, and the interaction between knowledge and technological progress.
What is a machine? Mechanical parts put together to perform a useful function? Synthetic biologists believe that those parts can be made from biology. Living things were part of machines for thousands of years, from oxen driving ploughs to horses pulling carts. As synthetic biology transforms life into living machines, will mechanical machines, powered by long-dead biology like oil, coal or gas, be a quirk in history?+ read more ...
The works here investigate the use, design and creation of living machines — from aesthetics to ethics. Wild bacteria are collected to produce pigments to meet our aesthetic desires, while extremophiles perform alchemy, seemingly producing gold from nothing. Designers use bacterial 'workhorses' to produce new materials and manufacturing processes. These products may look very different to those built by industrial robots that we know today.
Perhaps all of nature will become a useful machine, as landscapes are transformed to produce rocket fuel, and our faulty organs are replaced with lifesaving biological machines. Meanwhile, a machine prints protocells at the touch of a button and the proto-life forms quickly dissolve back into the liquid they emerged from.
A few months ago, a project to create glowing plants ‘using synthetic biology’ was proclaimed as the first step towards ‘sustainable natural lighting’. The project received almost half a million dollars in funding on crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. Funders in the US only were to be rewarded with seeds allowing them to grow their own glowing plants at home. Although the potential illumination provided by such plants won’t be enough to provide lighting, this is one powerful demonstration of our growing appetite for designed living organisms as consumable commodities. In Utah, ‘spidergoats’ have been created: spider DNA is inserted into their genomes causing the goats to produce a protein in their milk which can be spun into spider silk, a material ten times stronger than steel+ full interview ...
Synthetic biology is an exciting, and occasionally frightening, emerging field, bringing together engineers and scientists and even designers, artists and biohackers. As in many new fields, the language we use to talk about synthetic biology is still in the process of being resolved — should we apply engineering metaphors to living organisms? Is life really just a “DNA software system” as Craig Venter defines it, waiting to be reprogrammed at will? Or should we focus our attention on the potential risks of releasing living factories into the wild? What regime of intellectual property is appropriate for the code for synthetic organisms? Should we ‘jailbreak’ commercially-controlled forms of life?
Many of these questions are not new, but the communities that are connecting around synthetic biology constitute a different and more heterogenous group of practitioners than those who were responsible for framing the earlier discourse about genetic engineering. From iGEM (the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition) which is built around a shared library of reusable DNA parts in the form of BioBricks, to DIYbio communities which favour an open source approach to sharing, to well-funded government research programmes, corporate labs and venture capital-funded accelerators, synthetic biology is often portrayed as a kind of new alchemy, with the alluring prospect of living things becoming factories for drugs or fuel, and even resurrecting extinct species such as passenger pigeons, Tasmanian wolves and woolly mammoths. One of the works in GROW YOUR OWN… pushes this alchemical metaphor to its logical conclusion, through a bacterium that transforms toxic gold chloride into glistening gold leaf.
Because the debate around synthetic biology is still in the process of being framed, it is especially urgent to begin an informed and open discussion around the futures that it might enable. As the 2009 Royal Academy of Engineering report on Synthetic Biology stated, “public dialogue must begin ‘upstream’ before the parameters for debate have been narrowed down and decided upon”, something that failed conspicuously in public engagement efforts concerning genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the early 2000s, leading to a lack of nuance and a heavily polarised debate around the boundary between natural and unnatural. Speculative designers are particularly adept at confronting us with unexpected Director, Science Gallery MICHAEL JOHN GORMAN futures, and the work of two of our curators Anthony Dunne and Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, and many of the designers represented in GROW YOUR OWN… exemplify this approach. From growing a dolphin in a human uterus (rather than an environmentallyirresponsible human baby) to the release into the wild of synthetic ‘companion species’ by conservationists to protect endangered species, the artists and designers involved in GROW YOUR OWN… invite us into synthetic futures that we may not have imagined, going beyond knee-jerk reactions and the ‘ick’ factor and considering how synthetic life might even turn out to be our best tool for caring for nature. Professor Paul Freemont of Imperial College London is one of the leading researchers working in the field of synthetic biology, and has embraced the realm of design fiction while ensuring a grounding of ideas and speculations to lead to meaningful conversations. Cathal Garvey, inventor of the acclaimed 3D-printed Dremmel centrifuge is a key proponent of DIYbio and biohacking, adding a distinct voice to the curatorial team.
Synthetic biology is a field characterised by creative and critical tensions. Grown or made? Evolved or designed? Utility or exploitation? The discussions between the curators have correspondingly been intense and vigorous. Consensus about anything has often been a challenge — words, images, artefacts, all have been objects in debate, not yet blackboxed.
Playful works help to defuse some of the tensions. The mouse incorporating DNA allegedly taken from Elvis Presley’s hair — does it have a propensity for obesity and addiction? Human cheese, produced from the microbial residents of armpits, toes and navels of eminent individuals—could there be a market? Such projects also point to the experimental and occasionally mischievous community that has coalesced around competitions such as iGEM, vibrant bazaars for the modular components of life. This project was enabled through the support of a number of entities: the European Commission Framework 7 funded project, StudioLab, allowed us to work closely with the Royal College of Art on the theme of synthetic biology, and to learn and share approaches with the Ars Electronica Futurelab in Linz and Le Laboratoire in Paris, with whom we ran the Idea Translation Lab on the theme of synthetic biology, allowing undergraduate students to develop cross-disciplinary projects in this area. The Wellcome Trust supported the project through a generous Society Award. The Science Gallery team has supported the development of this challenging and exciting project, and I would like to especially thank Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg for her work on the front line as lead curator of the show.
GROW YOUR OWN… is an invitation. Whether you are interested in using bacteria to clean up oil spills or turning plants into factories, you can help us shape the discussion about what we can and should do with synthetic biology. The potential futures of synthetic biology are still open. As the tools of the trade become more and more available, we urgently require your creative and critical responses.
Let’s have the conversation.
At lab benches from NASA to the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, from corporate labs in Silicon Valley suburbs to prestigious university departments, from do-it-yourself collectives to Kickstarter-funded start-ups, biologists, engineers, computer scientists and others around the world are streaking out bacteria, designing DNA, modelling biological ‘circuits’, measuring biological ‘parts’, and imagining future products and manufacturing technologies. Together, they are working towards an engineering vision of a designable biology+ full interview ...
Synthetic biology is an invisible technology that today is, arguably, still a ‘technoscience.’ We’re told that it has the potential to transform our lives. We read that it could fuel our cars, target our tumours, and produce the chemicals that make the products we enjoy, feed an exploding global population, clean up polluted landfills and oceans, and even enable travel to Mars.
While these promises are world changing in scale, synthetic biology is a technology that you cannot see or touch. Its fundamental building blocks are microscopic strands of DNA, pieced together using engineering ideals such as standardisation, abstraction, decoupling and design. These are some of the principles that, since the Industrial Revolution, have made our modern, hightech world possible. The aim is to make biology programmable, predictable, and controllable, using the same logic as the zeroes and ones of digital computation that powered the information technology revolution. In what is called the ‘top-down’ approach, DNA is treated like code, with sequences copied from nature redesigned and reassembled on computers, printed out on synthesisers and inserted into existing cells to instruct them how to behave, what to make, and even when to die. Biology could become a design material unlike one that we have ever known before: a self-replicating technology that is everything from hardware to software, the factory and product too. But ‘natural’ biology is complex and changing. It lives and dies, it reproduces and evolves, which makes it unlike any ‘material’ we have known before.
As a designer and artist, I’m interested in whether biology can ever truly be designed, and if it can, asking what we should — or shouldn’t — be designing with it.
Synthetic biology is both an evolution and a revolution. We’ve been designing with biology for ten thousand years to make our lives healthier, easier or more pleasurable, through the meticulous selection and breeding of desirable traits, from bigger corn to bulkier cows. For the last 40 years, scientists have been using genetic modification (GM) to make yeast produce insulin for diabetics, higher-yielding crops, or things we don’t even think about, like washing powder or vegetarian rennet. Synthetic biologists are engineering life for the same reasons: to make useful stuff for humans to consume. Seeing synthetic biology as a continuation of what has come before is, for some, desirable, making regulation easier. GM is already a complicated enough issue legally, politically and socially. But synthetic biology is also revolutionary, beyond the hyped promises of resurrected mammoths or sustainable fuel made by bacteria digesting plant matter. While GM is not new, applying engineering thinking to control biology poses novel and difficult questions. Purpose-built, living machines challenge human-made boundaries between nature and culture, between design and evolution, and between creator and product. Utopian and dystopian visions drive the discussion around synthetic biology. Dreams of sustainable futures powered by a green technology are contrasted with bio-catastrophes of life out of control, misused in biological weapons or monopolised by corporations. In reality, what can be done now is limited in terms of applications: huge exertion has been required to engineer bacteria into simple on / off switches; companies hoping to grow large vats of fuel are putting their efforts into microorganisms that can secrete expensive ingredients for face creams or medicines, which make more commercial sense. But research is being conducted in labs all over the world on algae, plants, worms and mammals, in designing expanded or alternative genetic codes and even building ‘protocells’, making life from scratch (the ‘bottom-up’ approach).
All of these highlight unresolved questions around the commoditisation of life, safety, ethics, governance, the total industrialisation of nature, and issues that we can’t even yet imagine. Some of the works in GROW YOUR OWN… highlight what has been done, such as Howard Boland’s Banana Bacteria, which uses bacteria designed by MIT students for the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM) in 2006, whilst others, like Ai Hasegawa’s I Wanna Deliver a Dolphin…, delve into these unknowable and uncertain futures.
Synthetic biology is entering its second decade and is still described in terms of dreams and nightmares — neither of which may come true. But if synthetic biology does power a twenty-first century biotechnological revolution, its effects will not only be scientific, economic and industrial, they will be political, ethical, ecological, and above all, personal. Designing with the materials of life may present questions that have no right answer, but will require a balancing of risk for a global society and our shared natural environment. This is why it is so important for us all to consider what synthetic biology means to us now, as laws are being written, biomass feedstock planted, and technologies imagined.
The works in GROW YOUR OWN… use a breadth of approaches from fine art, bio art, design research, speculative design and DIYbio to address these questions and more. There are works that deal with questions of intellectual property, genetic privacy, the manufacture of life, activism, ecological implications, our definitions of sustainability, and with the role of the designer in the lab and the role of the lab in the gallery. No design or technology exists in isolation; context is everything. Synthetic biology is a field in which the biggest funders include the Chinese, US and UK governments and corporations. These societal questions are an integral part of the technology itself.
I sometimes describe synthetic biology as a promising disruptive technology, one that is also promising to disrupt nothing. Reimagining biology — and life with it — into a fully engineerable and designable material is no small matter, technically or ethically. We may be undertaking the biggest engineering project man has applied to nature yet, at potential risk to the ecosystem we live in, and we’re planning to make jet fuel and nonbiodegradable plastics. Instead of perpetuating the present, how might we reimagine our future?
Synbio is an exciting new field that fuses the practice of engineering design with the manipulation of biological systems at the genetic level. There have been several major technological advances in life sciences that have resulted in an unprecedented understanding of biological cells at the molecular level. One profound technological development called DNA sequencing allows the rapid automatic ‘reading’ of genetic code or genomes from any living organism (including humans) by a machine. Over the last five years, different technological developments have led to machines that can automatically chemically synthesise large pieces of DNA from its basic building blocks. In fact, it is now technically possible to synthesise and assemble an entire genome for a small microbe in a test tube. This ‘writing’ of DNA has lead to a complete rethink about how we might re-engineer the genetic code of simple cells like microbes and yeast. Synbio builds upon these advances and brings together the practice of engineering design and construction with molecular and cellular biology to allow the building of new genetic programs, and new cells driven by specific applications+ full interview ...
The most amazing thing about synbio is that the engineering approach, which necessitates developing new experimental and computational tools, can actually be applied in many different application areas. For example, we now realise that we need to think about more sustainable approaches to energy provision, food production and even industrial manufacturing to remove our dependency on fossil fuels. Using synthetic biology, many of these problems could be considered and I can see, in the not too distant future, manufacturing processes that are based primarily on engineered microbes and cells growing in large sealed vats producing a range of products — everything from fuels, commodity chemicals and pharmaceuticals to new materials such as bioplastics or silk. I can also see synbio providing new opportunities for vaccine development, infectious disease detection and novel drug delivery systems. It’s possible to imagine synbio tackling environmental applications, like cleaning up polluted land and water areas, producing sustainable crops to increase productivity and the ability to survive in extreme conditions, or even providing more environmentally sensitive ways to extract metals from minerals using engineered microbes or photosynthetic organisms that will harness sunlight and fix carbon dioxide to produce renewable energy products such as hydrogen.
I don’t think there is a distinction — I am a synthetic biologist, not a biologist. However, I do see myself as more focused on the experimental side of synbio rather than on the detailed mathematical modelling side. I would redefine ‘role’ as expertise, which is clearly biological. By bringing my expertise into the field, I hope I can provide the detailed mechanistic insights of biological processes that will enable colleagues on the more computational or mathematical sides to appreciate some of the complexities of biology.
This is a sensitive and tricky issue. Living systems are extraordinary, beautiful, elegant and highly complex. I personally don’t perceive such systems as impersonal machines. As we learn more and more details of how biological systems work, we keep finding surprising explanations as to how natural systems survive and replicate, evolve and adapt. As a synthetic biologist, I firmly believe that we need to be sensitive to the beauty and complexity of living systems. On the other hand, mankind has been exploiting living organisms for thousands of years for our own purposes — from the domestication of animals for food and companionship, to the use of microbes to make bread, alcohol and, more recently, drugs. Mankind has also completely altered what we perceive as the ‘natural environment’ with our continuous interventions, but we still call it ‘natural’. I see synthetic biology as an extension of our utility of nature. Perhaps paradoxically, synthetic biology may actually offer future solutions to some of the worst man-made problems.
Yes, and this is what synthetic biology aims to provide by developing a formal engineering and design framework for the genetic manipulation of biological systems. This framework has built-in checkpoints and design conditions to facilitate the responsible development of synbio applications. As the field develops, I can see this practice changing because one aspect of synbio is to de-skill some of the development and design steps, as well as to fully automate some of the building and testing stages. In the future, I see much of synbio being computer based, where the creative design can be used to access databases that hold genetic blueprints for many organisms. The synbio professional of the near future will draw upon this detailed knowledge base to design and construct new genetic circuits and ultimately new cells for purposeful applications.
I believe that synbio will promote a re-engagement of humans with the natural world, and also provoke a debate on how we move towards more sustainable human activities. Even in the world of environmental conservation, people are excited about the concept of de-extinction — bringing extinct species back using synbio technologies. Whilst this may not be widely accepted or even desirable, it has reinvigorated the extinction debate and has prompted synbio researchers to consider other opportunities in conservation. It always strikes me that society, perhaps even the majority, does not really appreciate where and how everyday products come from. The synthetic materials and chemical building blocks that make up almost every man-made object around us come from fossilised fuels and the petrochemical industry. It will not be too long before some of these chemical processes will become biological and more environmentally friendly. I see a hybrid chemical-synbio industry developing, where economics and politics will hopefully drive the uptake of synbio technologies and processes.
uptake of synbio technologies and processes. One interesting cultural ethos of synbio is the establishment of an open source model for biotechnology development that challenges some of the existing biotech and pharmaceutical corporate models for privacy, piracy and protection. Combined with the growing DIY biology movement, I can see synbio technologies becoming very accessible, but this will bring with it serious issues and difficulties in terms of regulation and global governance.
As synbio offers potential step changes in so many application areas, it already provokes vigorous debate and discussion. It has inspired artists and designers, political and social scientists, and ethicists and philosophers to focus on the potential future outcomes of synbio, never mind the bioengineers and biologists actually doing the technology development. I don’t know of any other field of science and engineering that has crossed over so many boundaries.
For me, synbio is about genetic engineering moving out of the laboratory and into the messiness of everyday life via the marketplace. This could potentially lead to all sorts of benefits and improvements in the quality of our lives; but in making this shift it also has to engage with all the stuff that comes with market-led capitalism — rampant consumerism, fantasies and desires rather than needs, irrationality and the profit motive. Somehow, we need to make sure that the short-sighted values currently driving technological development do not destroy the genuine potential of this technology to enrich life+ full interview ...
Many people claim that synbio is similar to digital technology in that you can build complex systems from simple components, but of course once you begin to work with life, it’s not so easy to control things. What is to stop these new biological products and devices from evolving and mutating? Also, for digital technology, society has been treated as a bit of a laboratory. New products and services are released and companies watch to see what happens. There is very little speculation about the possible consequences of digital technology. When we are dealing with living or semi-living materials, devices and systems, it’s a very different situation. In this case, we need to explore potential risks, consequences and the possible negative implications of building a world where animals become factories, human bodies produce raw materials and everyday objects are potentially alive. It would be extremely risky to let the values driving the development of digital technologies determine how synthetic biology enters our lives.
Artists and designers are very sensitive to the human aspects of new technologies; we are tuned into people’s hopes, dreams and anxieties. We’re also very good at making abstract philosophical and ethical issues concrete — giving them form so that we can have more open and public conversations about what we want from synthetic biology, and of course, what we do not want. Designers in particular can use their experience working with industry to present ideas as imaginary consumer products that connect with people’s everyday lives.
But speculating through design is more than just materialising possible futures for biotechnology and synthetic biology. Its real value is in materialising alternative ways of being, of identifying new values, priorities, beliefs, hopes and fears, our basic ideologies, and combining them with technology to highlight how different worldviews might lead to very different realities.day lives.
This is a very interesting question. Design theorist Björn Franke has suggested that one of the main differences between science research and design research is that science focuses on existing reality, while design explores realities that do not exist yet, and maybe never will.
For me, the real is something actual, something that exists in the same space as we do; it could be in an exhibition, a shop or a home. A fictional design expressed as a physical object is real, but the world it is designed for might be fictional in the same way worlds portrayed in sci-fi literature and cinema are fictional. It’s this coexistence in the here-and-now and a fictional world that makes design fictions or speculative designs so interesting. Just as artefacts in history museums make us wonder about the societies they belonged to, speculative designs can prompt us to imagine what future, or yet-to-exist societies might be like.
When confronted with an imaginary product the viewer needs to suspend their disbelief. So for designers, there is a strong temptation to make speculative designs look ‘real’, as if they were manufactured today, in order to meet our expectations of what a product should look like. But this creates all sorts of problems, as the viewer is essentially being tricked into believing they are real. This is how props in films are designed, but we know they are not real because we are watching a film. In a gallery, we can assume they are not real, but once objects like these circulate in the media and their original context is lost, they can become borderline hoax objects creating all sorts of problems and confusion. I think it is more interesting to invite the viewer to willingly suspend their disbelief by subtly signalling through the design of the object that, although actual and physically present, it is not real and belongs to a fictional world, or a yet-to-exist reality. I call this the ‘aesthetics of unreality’, and believe it also provides a more interesting experience for the viewer in an exhibition where they can spend as much time as they like with the design, unmediated by press or other people’s interpretations.
Artists and designers are experimenting more with fiction and moving beyond working with actual materials; the visions being put forward are more ambiguous, and it’s harder to say if they are utopias or dystopias, which I think is a good thing. Instead of being sold a dream or presented with a cautionary tale, we are invited to unpick their proposals and explore their social, cultural and ethical trade-offs.
Working with real materials, although technically impressive, can also mean that artworks are constrained by the science and protocols of reality. It’s possible sometimes to have a little too much reality in a project. When designers and artists embrace speculation, whole new realities can emerge. This way of working requires aesthetic rigour, intellectual discipline and a dose of plausibility. Design speculations need to be skilfully crafted to avoid becoming ungrounded fantasies of little interest to anyone.
I think the best speculations serve as ‘useful fictions’ for developing new perspectives on existing situations; as platforms for discussing preferable futures with both experts and non-experts; and as catalysts for interdisciplinary imagining about how the world could be.
Biohacking, or DIYbio, has to be one of the most exciting subcultures active today. A network of people worldwide are taking biotechnology out of the lab and making it easier and more hackable. They can then use it to repair, rebuild or replace equipment and protocols to fit the low-budget and sometimes messy world of basement labs. Most people do it for fun, or out of pure curiosity. Others do it to solve problems not serviced by the traditional arms of biotechnology and academia. Others still, do it for political or intellectual reasons. Most have no formal training in biology beyond secondary school (if that), and many are in countries whose institutions don’t have the resources to do much better.+ full interview ...
I work with others around the world on a great, shared project to make biological science something, not only understandable to the general public, but into a skill or hobby that is accessible and useful to anyone with a passion and enough patience to learn. The study and manipulation of life is a skill as ancient as civilisation itself, but the last century has seen an unprecedented trend where people effectively abandoned living technologies in favour of inert ones: we aim to reverse that, and push back.
My ‘practice’ is a converted ensuite bedroom, where I have built a lab bench abutting a teetering computer desk. Atop the desk is a collection of constructed, cobbled or recycled equipment, and below it is a selection of incongruous food ingredients and abused pharmacy-brand chemicals. In the fridge and the polystyrene box that serves as an incubator, you’ll find the biological components: the bacterial cells and DNA samples that comprise my ongoing research into ‘distributed biotechnology’.
My current goal is to create and provide a set of systems for the easy production of critical lab enzymes, using equipment and ingredients you’d find in the supermarket. The ‘price by weight’ for the cheapest lab enzyme, EcoRI, is higher than for weapons-grade uranium, and yet the costs to produce it are negligible. So make, don’t pay! I want to help trigger a wave of ‘Free or Libre Biotech’ that will topple the myth of inaccessible biotech for good.
My collaborators are a loosely affiliated group of postnational hackers, who share ideas, feedback, protocols and sometimes even physical stuff, by highvolume mailing lists, blogs and even on Twitter. We don’t all share a mission. Many — perhaps most — are in this for fun, not to fulfil some overarching political or social goal. But I find it’s hard not to develop a grand vision, faced with this much possibility.
When computers escaped the labs, computer science did not shrink. Far from it, scientists were freed to focus on the pure science of a field that began to boom and expand exponentially. On the other side, hackers didn’t turn into academics in order to understand and push boundaries. Similarly, I think that as the engineering of life escapes the labs, academics will thrive on a newfound ability to focus on ‘big’ science, perhaps at lower cost due to biohacker-made equipment and reagents. Meanwhile, some biohackers will remain scientific and methodical as they ask and answer questions, but many will leave the scientific method behind in favour of creative or technical work. Their different outlook will lead to technology we can’t yet imagine.
What challenges are posed to DIYbio by politics and society? Regulatory, certainly. We currently exist in a very tightly constrained environment in Europe. Despite abundant opportunities for external funding, only a small handful of the community in Europe are legally permitted to conduct productive research, and CATHAL GARVEY Biohacker and Science Gallery Leonardo 14 / 15 so European biohackers have focused more on niche (but nevertheless excellent) projects like directed water snail evolution, microbial fuel cells, bioplastics, DNA fingerprinting, and outreach and education activities. While this constraint is forcing us to be creative in our approaches, it’s holding us back, while biohackers elsewhere attract larger and more active communities and advance more ambitious and impressive projects. Europe is a fundamentally hostile place to do science, but that is likely to change in coming years. I think scientists have generally realised that the platonic ideal of a passive, unopinionated and unpolitical scientist is not only impossible, but fundamentally unwise. People respond better to anecdote, story, passion, mission. When we remain silent, proponents of false science prevail: vaccine scares, agricultural vandalism, false remedies made of water. More and more scientists are starting to speak out, and it is having a real effect. Not only do I expect this to benefit biohackers, I expect biohacking to benefit science as a whole in Europe. What better way to dispel anti-GM hysteria than to let people learn to understand and even create their own GM organisms? Similarly, what better way to rebuild trust in vaccines and real medicines than to let people learn about bacteria, antibiotics and the mechanisms of resistance first-hand? Looking inward, how better to hold bad science to account than to have a larger group of science-literate citizens scrutinising the news and demanding better evidence?
The ‘hacker ethic’ inherited from the hacker community has been the most influential cultural influence on DIYbio and biohacking, in my view. The computer metaphor, too, has been potent. Not only in legitimising the potential for DIYbio, but also in guiding the direction of research and improvements in current practice. But, there are stress points in the metaphor.
For one thing, the digital-to-biological model leads to the false assumption that DNA behaves linearly and does not exhibit context sensitivity. In other words, that computer programming paradigms can be directly transposed into biology and used without adaptation. However, life does not conform to this assumption at all. While cells can be ‘programmed’, the way we must think about these programs is dramatically different to how we approach computers, and we’re being forced to create new systems from the ground up to follow the dream of cellular computing. The culture of information technology is constructive at the technological end of synbio and biohacking, but I feel it is less appropriate when applied socially to the impacts and human factors. A hacker’s pet project online is avoidable to others, a curio or webapp that can be simply ignored. A biohacker creates a thing that can breed, grow, spread and invade. Although vastly overblown by special interest groups and false-science proponents, the risks in biology have little parallel in computers, and vice versa.
And yet, the fact that biology has realworld consequences may prove the redemption of biohacking and put the lie to fearmongers. A computer virus can crash thousands of servers without harming a single person, so there is no strong moral consequence to dissuade a talented, if misguided, programmer from writing one. The same personality does not necessarily lend itself to creating malicious works of nature. In that case, our parallels are inappropriate in a positive sense. We cannot claim biological viruses will be as common as computer viruses. As nobody has yet maliciously hacked a hospital or pacemaker, despite ample opportunity, we might surmise that malicious bio-viruses simply won’t occur in our lifetimes; not until long after the means to counter them becomes widespread and efficient.
Finally, the parallels only go so far for basic reasons of structure and physics. While a biological aerial is entirely possible, it’s easier to make from metal or silicon. While a biological x86 processor is equally possible, it would be slower and less efficient than a chip. Biology is simply better at making parallel computers in which many calculations are carried out simultaneously, such as brains. Biology will always be more mutable, adaptable and, essentially, more ‘wet’ than silicon. As we outgrow the silicon metaphor and learn to harness this squishy technology more effectively, we’ll cease to need metaphors entirely; biology will simply be technology, as it was before.