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Bacterial Culture
Using everything from briefcases full of rainbow-coloured excrement to DIY genetic modification kits, cutting-edge artists are revolutionizing the way we look at science.

From Scatalog (James King and Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg) On the outside: a sleek and smooth white briefcase, sporting a bright silver handle, cheerfully labeled “E. chromi” in a cursive font, each letter a different colour of the rainbow. On the inside: an assortment of stool samples, each also brightly spotted in a different colour of the rainbow, cushioned neatly into white pockets for easy examination. Dubbed “The Scatalog”, this is the spectrum of fecal matter that could be produced through the ingestion of the “E. chromi” bacterial strain, depending on your internal conditions. The Scatalog itself remains speculative – but the bacteria already exist. Developed at Cambridge University and winner of the grand prize at the 2009 International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM) E. chromi is a modified strain of the harmless stomach bacterium E. coli and comes in six strains, each capable of secreting a separate colour: red, yellow, green, blue, brown or violet. E. coli is a normal bacterial species that lives throughout the human gut; E. chromi is a new, multi-coloured version that can produce pigments visible to the naked eye if set off by certain chemical triggers (like a pregnancy test strip changes colour when the hCG hormone is present). Theoretically, you could populate the human intestines with E. chromi (with a yogurt drink, for example), where they could live harmlessly perpetually, just as E. coli do. But if they were to detect something unusual – such as the chemical signals from colitis or intestinal worms – they would produce their signature colours, giving you a quick, visible sign that something is wrong. Think of them as colourful microbial sentinels. Rainbow excrement was just one of many applications that James King and Daisy Alexandra Ginsberg devised for E. chromi (others included bacteria programmed to indicate whether drinking water is safe or to detect elevated carbon dioxide levels). “We are actually being quite mischievous with the Scatalog,” King says. “Most synthetic biologists would rather promote medical applications that are more sexy. We thought this was one of the more logical outputs.” But King and Ginsberg are not scientists, they’re artists. Or, to be more precise, “speculative designers” (King’s phrase) who specialize in fashioning uses for emerging technologies (or sometimes, technologies that don’t quite exist). While some speculative designers are imagining uses for information technology or space exploration, King and Ginsberg have, for the past few years, focused on synthetic biology. While genetic engineers modify existing species – rice crops that come packed with vitamin A, for example – synthetic biologists seek to invent new life forms altogether. Nobody has yet to create a bona fide “artificial” form of life, though the most famous proponent of synthetic biology, Craig Venter, aims to do just that. Already biologists are stitching together assemblies of genes into new kinds of organisms – usually single-celled – so they can do useful things for us: vats of modified E. coli bacteria that produce insulin, for example, are already sitting in laboratories around the world, saving the lives of diabetics. Designer microbes could produce clean energy, decontaminate polluted air and water, and give birth to a new universe of outlandish consumer products. Synthetic biology is poised, so its supporters believe, to revolutionize the 21st century, just as computers did in the 20th. Hoping to influence this supposed revolution, artists and designers around the world are working in laboratories, partnering with scientists, and collaborating on projects that imagine how these innovations in genetic engineering could be applied. King’s latest project, Cellularity, envisions how medicine could change as pharmaceutical developers begin to deliver drugs inside chemical cells rather than via compressed chemical tablets. The chemical cells would adapt to the environment inside their host and evolve – jut as living cells do. Dressing The Meat of Tomorrow fashioned palatable designs for in-vitro meat (lab-grown animal tissue, sometimes termed “victimless steaks”), a possible staple of future meals. Ginsberg’s latest project, The Synthetic Kingdom, features an array of imagined oddities like bioluminescent kidney stones extracted from factory employees of the future who work in bio-electronics manufacturing facilities.   From Dressing the Meat of Tomorrow (James King) Bringing an artist’s eye and an outsider’s viewpoint, designers who work in synthetic biology can influence how we perceive a field that’s riddled with negative connotations. Genetic changes, after all, are challenging for even the most educated to grasp: they take place on a scale we cannot see and have intricate molecular effects none of us can absolutely comprehend. “Watching people’s reactions to a suitcase full of poo is interesting,” Ginsberg says. “The normal horror of genetic modification goes right out the window. People are suddenly challenged to think more carefully about a technology they normally oppose.” “Whenever there’s a debate about synthetic biology, one side will claim it will open up a new utopia and the other will say it is untested and unsafe,” King says. “The truth I think lies in the middle. Our work presents a more subtle argument, it depolarizes it.” Though the colourful and crowd-pleasing nature of their work may have the capacity to challenge mainstream perceptions, King says he in fact is far more interested in influencing the researchers who practice synthetic biology: “If you can make a researcher think more deeply about their work and its implications, that’s worth more than changing the minds of thousands of people who don’t engage with genetic technology at all.” SOFTENING SYNTHETICS Tinted turds are just one idea among many in synthetic biology that have been inspired by artists and designers. Cambridge researchers have harnessed the genes of fireflies to “model the feasibility of using bioluminescent trees as a replacement for street lamps.” There have also been petri dish cultures of E. coli capable of producing photographic images – dubbed “Coliroid” – and microbial strains engineered to produce “the smell of rain.” Last year saw the inception of the International Genetically Engineered Art Competition (to mirror iGEM). At the crest of the movement is Synthetic Aesthetics, an initiative jointly run by Stanford University in California and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, which supports long-term collaborations between scientists and designers (Ginsberg is a design fellow). “The aim is to explore rather than to advocate,” says Pablo Schyfter, a sociologist and a postdoctoral scholar with Synthetic Aesthetics. “We wanted to know, what could artists and designers bring to the field?” The process of researching requires scientists to be very focused on the particulars of their field. They can become too focused “on the Petri dish” as Ginsberg puts it, and insulated from thinking about the broader implications of their work. “It’s fair to say that before this project, considering the public’s reactions wasn’t really at the forefront of my mind,” says Dr. Alistair Elfick, Director of the Centre for Biomedical Engineering at the University of Edinburgh. “Meeting designers who were imagining possible scenarios for how our technologies could be applied gave me new insights. It was almost a wake-up call that forced me to consider how the public may perceive what I was trying to do.” Those perceptions, of course, are highly coloured by the ways that genetic technologies were introduced in the 1990s; tight controls over patents and laws, opposition to labelling, and widespread fear of unknown risks have left their mark. Claims to have the public’s best interests in mind were widely perceived with skepticism. Acrimonious legal disputes over crop ownership, say – most famously with Canadian canola farmer Percy Schmeiser – seemed to confirm suspicions that corporate motivations solely concerned profit. “We’re all very conscious that the way genetic modification was initially presented to the public has left us with baggage,” Dr Elfick says. “We don’t want to make those same mistakes again; we want to be very open about what we do.” BIOBRICKS AND BIOHACKS These new vanguards of synthetic biology seek to make their technology, information and ideas available to all. Organizations such as OpenWetWare and Hackteria provide vast databases of information free online, often in wiki format. The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based BioBricks Foundation, which supports the development of so-called “standard biological parts, devices and systems,” states that it “works to ensure that the engineering of biology is conducted in an open and ethical manner to benefit all people and the planet.” Though they are a for-profit organization, their lack of emphasis on genetic patents strikingly distinguishes them from the behaviour of biotech firms in the ’90s, which came under heavy criticism for attempting to patent even naturally existing genes, such as those that predispose certain women to breast cancer. (Last year in US courts, this practice was deemed invalid.) Taking things a step further is the “DIY Biology” movement, which aims to put biotech tools into the hands of amateur scientists. The BioFab project, a spin-off from BioBricks, aims to eventually produce a kit with all the tools and parts necessary to perform basic genetic modifications. The made-in-Canada Genomikon is a similar kit aimed at high-school students, and should be available next year. “You could sit a teenager down with this and within an hour they’d be designing bacteria,” says Andrew Hessel. “It’s pretty cool.” Hessel’s the Bioinformatics and Biotechnology Co-Chair at the Singularity University and one of synthetic biology’s main proponents in Canada. He’s also the co-founder of the Pink Army Cooperative, which claims to be the world’s first cooperative biotechnology company, focused on breast cancer drug development. “I believe in transparency,” he says. “You cannot see into giant drug companies and government laboratories.” As genetic modulation equipment continues to become cheaper and more accessible, he predicts the involvement of artists, designers and other non-biologists will only grow. “We’ll end up seeing a lot of new artists coming into this field and showcasing products that push the boundaries in ways that can be quite stylish and even playful, without scaring people,” he says. “WHERE IS THE WHY?” Skeptics might think that artists are using their aesthetic flair and sensitive touch to give genetically modified life forms a more friendly appearance. But many of the designers working on synthetic biology are suspicious of the technology themselves. One of the biggest misconceptions of their work, say Ginsberg and King, is that they aim to popularize, or even condone synthetic biology. “We are definitely not trying to promote its use,” Ginsberg says. “We’re trying to promote debate. I wanted to understand why I myself felt so strangely about it. The more I learned, the more seductive the technology becomes.” Dr. Schyfter goes even farther to say that he is still “unconvinced” by the technology. “I am rather skeptical of synthetic biology,” he says, “but that’s precisely the reason I find it so interesting.” One of his main critiques is the fact that that synthetic biologists seek to model their field on electrical engineering – practitioners speak of biological “circuits,” seek to build “oscillators” and “switches” and the capacity to “store memory.” Some of the flashiest and most publicized innovations in synthetic biology have aimed to replicate electronic devices, such as the bacterial photographs and glowing trees. “This focus is misplaced, “ he argues. “There are qualitative differences between living and electrical systems that just can’t be ignored.” Indeed, many scientists who work in the field of synthetic biology will make the same breathless statements about the revolutionary, world-changing potential for this new field – much as the disciples of Silicon Valley have spoken about web technology and the idealized “information commons.” Self-styled “biohackers” see themselves as democratizing information, liberating data and undermining power just as web pirates do. “Synthetic biologists should instead be focusing on what biological systems already do very well,” Schyfter says, “which is produce chemicals. Innovations that allow us to produce chemicals like fuel, water, and medicines will be more likely to succeed.” Though these are certainly among the goals of many biologists working in the nascent field of synthetic biology – as mentioned, we’ve produced insulin this way for years – Schyfter feels they still have a long way to go to defining their true aims. “Where is the why? Not enough people in this field are actually asking this question, why do synthetic biology in the first place?” In fact, we cannot even agree in the first instance on a clear definition for “synthetic biology,” he points out. Designers like Ginsberg call it “a new approach to genetic engineering,” while Hessel calls it “genetic engineering with computer-aided design combined with DNA synthesis.” Most people tend to think of synthetic biology in terms of Craig Venter’s ambition: to create a new form of life from scratch. The Pandora’s Box metaphor has been applied to modified genes (usually with nefarious implications) with such great frequency that it’s beyond clich. But it does remain true that the technology has developed to such an extent, and its application found such wide use, that the place of synthetic biology in our future is absolutely guaranteed. We will undoubtedly see more forays by artists, amateur enthusiasts and democratic mavericks. “That’s part of the beauty of synthetic biology: everything becomes so cheap, it becomes playful,” says Hessel. “And playfulness should come into the genetic realm. It’s been far too serious for far too long.”  

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