What happens when biology—specifically, the core materials and processes that underpin the life cycle of all living beings—birth, existence, disease, and death—becomes synthetically replicable by humans and, consequently, a building block for design? In the wake of the recent MIT publication Synthetic Aesthetics, and just a few days prior to the iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) Synthetic Biology 2014 Jamboree in early November 2014, we set out to discuss this complex, compelling question at MoMA by hosting a panel discussion, Synthetic Aesthetics: New Frontiers in Contemporary Design.
The realm of research and practice in which basic processes of life are restructured and redesigned is called synthetic biology, or “synbio,” for short. A very basic definition suggests that synbio is “an emerging area of research that can broadly be described as the design and construction of novel artificial biological pathways, organisms or devices, or the redesign of existing natural biological systems.” First described publicly by the French biologist Stéphane Leduc in 1912, it was, however, the increasing comprehension of the structure and sequence of DNA from the 1960s onward that proved a key enabling technology for the field. (The discovery of the “molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material”—or DNA to you and I— earned the Nobel Prize in 1962.) In 2010, synthetic biology made another giant leap when biochemist and entrepreneur J. Craig Venter synthesized DNA itself, revealing the world’s first self-replicating synthetic genome. We now have the tools to program, code, and design (yes, design!) life.
You’ve almost certainly unknowingly come into contact with real-world applications of synthetic biology: from “nano-cocoons” that allow targeted drug delivery in cancer patients, to new biofuels derived from waste, to synthetic algae in household products like laundry detergent (e.g., the Ecover brand) and treats like cookies, which often contain synthetically engineered vanilla. As Drew Endy, a Stanford synthetic biologist and a coauthor of the Synthetic Aesthetics book, suggests, “To view synthetic biology as merely being the domain of scientists and engineers is a mistake of the first order.” Design is most definitely a major part of this conversation.
MoMA’s Architecture and Design department has always been a center for catalyzing lively debate around contemporary issues in design, and starting with the 2008 exhibition Design and the Elastic Mind—and the public programs leading up to it—MoMA has stimulated and supported those who work at the intersection of design, biology, and technology. In October 2014 we carried on this tradition through a program focused on the new design visions and applications engendered by pioneering research in the field of synthetic biology.
Both at the dais and in the audience we gathered some of the best and brightest to discuss the roles, stakes, and results of design’s contributions to this field. Architect (and MoMA/MoMA PS1 Young Architects Program winner) David Benjamin spoke on biofabrication, and the possibilities of—among other research avenues—mycelium bricks that engineer biological growth systems to mold building blocks. (They do so via a process that combines corn stalks and mushroom fungus, resulting in a building material that has a lower environmental impact than other similarly functioning products). (Watch the video.) William Shih, a professor of biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute, broke down the complicated research his lab undertakes into bite-sized morsels, explaining how molecules work and—crucially—how and why they might be synthetically designed to do things like deliver drug treatments more effectively. (Watch the video.) Synbio designer (and Synthetic Aesthetics lead author) Daisy Ginsberg shared, among other works, the benchmark E.Chromi project (debuted at iGEM 2009 and included in MoMA’s Talk To Me exhibition in 2011), a design fiction that envisions future self-diagnoses of internal ailments through drinkable, synthetically engineered probiotics that would combine with intestinal bacteria to produce color-coded poop that reveals the state of a person’s health. (Watch the video.) Finally, Dan Grushkin, the founder of Genspace, talked about citizen scientists and doing synthetic biology experiments in his Brooklyn living room. (Watch the video.) Their talks paved the way for an intense and rewarding discussion with the audience that spilled out into the lobby after the end of the panel. (Check out the video of the Q&A session.)
So far, so utopian—or so it might seem on the surface, at least. But of course design—like life—is not so one-sided, and both speakers and audience examined the complexities and contradictions of synthetic biology too. Soon after Venter synthesized his first cell, he announced a partnership with the government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to launch what WIRED termed “an assembly line for genetic engineering.” This emerging field makes individuals and institutions very nervous—environmental agencies campaign against using this new technology to change the natural order of things and engender potentially irreversible consequences—and suspicious of the potential for future misuse or unauthorized appropriation. The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues produced a report on ethical practices in synthetic biology in 2010. Mining such fears, Andrew Hessel wrote a speculative essay for The Atlantic in 2012 titled “Hacking the President’s DNA,” in which he imagines a near future where biowarfare would be individually tailored to potential targets. Hessel, a Distinguished Researcher with Autodesk’s Bio/Nano Programmable Matter group, points out that this scenario is closer to reality than we might like to think. Autodesk, the company that brought us the design software tool AutoCAD, more recently designed and built their own synthetic virus in less than two weeks for around $1,000. Their feat demonstrated that synthetic biology can help us deliver chemicals for targeted physiological outcomes, and that the technology to do so is becoming increasingly low-cost—but to what ends? How should we approach new possibilities for design in this field?
The intersection of biology and design isn’t new—nature has inspired and influenced architecture and design for millennia. Neither is MoMA new to this conversation, with acquisitions ranging from Hector Guimard’s Art Nouveau entrances for the Paris metro through the bio-mimetic Lily Impeller, books like BioDesign (2012), and the aforementioned exhibitions and programs. Our panel highlighted the huge leaps forward we have made in the last decade in terms of our ability to manipulate nature, as well as the growing tension around issues of ecological sustainability and responsible use of resources. The goal was to understand design’s place in investigating the radical potential—and possible complications—of synthetic biology, and to reach across disciplinary divides. The conversation was picked up again just a few weeks later, on the occasion of the Biofabricate summit, an intense and illuminating event held in New York, in which we also participated.
The future of synthetic biology and design remains malleable and open. It’s a field of inquiry we feel is exceptionally relevant to design and daily life, and we will continue to question, support, and present it to you at MoMA so you can join in the discussion.