Synthetic Aesthetics: Investigating Synthetic Biology's Designs on Nature (MIT Press)
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Synthetic biology manipulates the stuff of life. For synthetic biologists, living matter is programmable material. In search of carbon-neutral fuels, sustainable manufacturing techniques, and innovative drugs, these researchers aim to redesign existing organisms and even construct completely novel biological entities. Some synthetic biologists see themselves as designers, inventing new products and applications. But if biology is viewed as a malleable, engineerable, designable medium, what is the role of design and how will its values apply?
In this book, synthetic biologists, artists, designers, and social scientists investigate synthetic biology and design. After chapters that introduce the science and set the terms of the discussion, the book follows six boundary-crossing collaborations between artists and designers and synthetic biologists from around the world, helping us understand what it might mean to 'design nature.' These collaborations have resulted in biological computers that calculate form; speculative packaging that builds its own contents; algae that feeds on circuit boards; and a sampling of human cheeses. They raise intriguing questions about the scientific process, the delegation of creativity, our relationship to designed matter, and, the importance of critical engagement. Should these projects be considered art, design, synthetic biology, or something else altogether?
Synthetic biology is driven by its potential; some of these projects are fictions, beyond the current capabilities of the technology. Yet even as fictions, they help illuminate, question, and even shape the future of the field.
addition to his ongoing work on bioscience and biotechnology, Pablo has carried out research and writing in gender studies and Latin American studies. Alistair Elfick is co-director of SynthSys—Synthetic & Systems Biology at the University of Edinburgh. Having gained degrees in mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering at the University of Durham, U.K., Alistair won both a Fulbright Commission Distinguished Scholar’s Award and a Royal Academy of Engineering Global Research Award, which
living things are a result of evolution arriving at an impressive solution to problems found in the environment. The example given by Alistair Elfick and Drew Endy in chapter 1 fits in with this perspective. A single seed found in a pinecone can reproduce a fir tree, which will have its own pinecones. I share with Alistair and Drew a fascination with the marvelous complexity of this phenomenon—with the awesome results of millennia of evolution. “Design” might work well as a shorthand to the much
including an individual’s genetic makeup, the skin’s microbial flora, age, exposure to ultraviolet light, and externally applied skin-care products. We discussed how we might influence the condition of the skin by manipulating microbial populations through the application of signaling molecules—the chemicals used to transmit messages between cells. Based on an understanding of these interactions, could we create personalized skin-care products using a sample of the individual’s genome sequence
and skin flora? We envisioned a personalized skin-care product, secreted by a living population of microbes housed in a purpose-built container. These engineered, synthetic organisms feed off the cotton balls that are used to apply them to the skin by producing cellulases: enzymes that digest cotton to produce glucose, the cell’s primary source of energy. The organism could also produce fragrance, soap, and oil molecules, vitamins, and signaling molecules in a combination that is most
processed. Designers at IDEO have put tremendous effort into articulating and modeling their creative process in as much detail as possible. This is because design, not unlike night science, is inherently a loose and constantly changing journey on which one can easily become lost. By adding structure to this journey, designers shape it into a controlled and manageable process and are able to move back and forth between exploratory and more focused ways of working. Any design project can move