Synthetic biology raises questions about future of life

1 Nov 2013

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, lead curator at Science Gallery in Dublin. Photo by Harry Borden

The new exhibition GROW YOUR OWN at Science Gallery in Dublin is exploring the futuristic world of synthetic biology. Claire O’Connell caught up with lead curator Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, who is asking some big questions.

Cheese made with bacteria from a human armpit? An ‘Elvis mouse’ with DNA from the king of rock and roll? Humans giving birth to dolphins? GROW YOUR OWN at Science Gallery has plenty to leave you scratching your head (and possibly holding your nose). The exhibition, which opened last week, explores the weird and often wonderful world of synthetic biology (or synbio), an emerging field that looks to apply engineering to biology to come up with ‘parts’ that can be used to design solutions, much like you would engineer a circuit or programme software.   

Synthetic biology is both an “evolution and a revolution” of genetic modification, explains Ginsberg. “Synthetic biologists want to make it more reliable, predictable and easier to engineer,” she says. “So they are using ideas of standardisation and computer modelling, treating DNA like a programmable code – are you able to make reusable parts that you know how they are going to behave, are you able to piece them together – it is a very different attitude to genetic modification.”

But the approach understandably raises many questions, and Ginsberg has been looking at them for several years as a designer, artist and writer. One of the big issues is whether it’s possible to engineer predictable parts for inherent ‘noisiness’ of biological systems, and researchers are now making fact sheets that detail biological components, she explains. “Whether biology will ever behave in the way and to the level that they need it to is a question that I find really interesting.”

So what does she think of Craig Venter, who in 2010 unveiled an artificially synthesised genome that functioned when placed into a cell? “He is interested in the big-scale vision, these big stories which incite people,” says Ginsberg. “I am much more interested in how we explore what hasn’t yet been identified as issues, and using design to question if we can design biology – what could we make, what should we make, and what shouldn’t we make – and how do we use art and design practice to explore that.”

Designs on synbio

Ginsberg’s route into looking at synthetic biology started in a place you might not expect: architecture. She studied at the University of Cambridge before moving into urban design at London City Hall, looking at long-term futures for her native city. “That was where I first started being interested in this idea of design and the future and how design can shape people’s lives,” she recalls. 

A scholarship to Harvard University introduced her to wider areas of design and technology, and she realised that perhaps architecture wasn’t the best fit for her. So she studied Design Interactions at the Royal College of Art and became involved in collaborative initiatives, such as Synthetic Aesthetics.

“My interest in synthetic biology came about because engineers were talking about the design of biology and that was intriguing to me, what will designers be doing in 50 years’ time,” she says. 

An exhibition to question

Indeed, many of the exhibits at GROW YOUR OWN explore the potential future and visitors might find themselves challenged to rethink boundaries – to name just a few, Stranger Visions ‘reconstructs’ human faces from DNA found on cigarette butts, Circumventive Organs explores notional body parts that could be designed to address disease and Designing for the Sixth Extinction imagines how synbio could have an impact on biodiversity and conservation.

Ginsberg has been involved in several of the exhibits, including the show-stopping E. chromi, which imagines how a yogurt drink could contain bacteria that produce coloured pigment if inflammation or disease is present in the bowel. The specific hue of what comes out the other end would then tell you about what’s going on in the intestine. 

“[The exhibition] is not about promoting synthetic biology and it is not trying to scare people,” says Ginsberg. “It is trying to say this is a really complex area, there are no right answers to a lot of these questions of ‘should we or shouldn’t we’, how do we start opening up this discussion and imagining what it could be and understanding what it is. And the main thing is that people go away with questions and stay having those conversations.”

GROW YOUR OWN runs at Science Gallery until 19 January 2014.

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication