Synthetic Biology: The Designers Making Life

Indicator bacteria that change color in the presence of certain substances appeared in 2010. Initially, “living sensors” were used to detect mercury contamination in water, but soon became widespread. Since 2015, the profession of a pigment hunter has become in demand, finding rare colors and their genes in exotic plants and animals. Around 2040, yoghurts with lactic acid GM bacteria E. chromi will come into vogue, which will help diagnose bowel diseases by the shade of secretions. Ten years later, the Orange Liberation Front (OLF), a terrorist organization advocating for the preservation of the fruit’s natural orange color, will enter the political scene. By the turn of the 2070s, Google’s climate division will fill the atmosphere with microbes that color the air when carbon dioxide levels reach dangerous levels.

Although, Daisy Ginsberg’s early predictions did not come true, this is the future that synthetic biology and the ability to create new life forms are preparing for us.

Modern biology, especially such a complex field as synthetic biology, does not seem to be a suitable hobby for a designer and an architect. But behind this is a clear concept: according to Daisy Ginsberg, the very basic principle of design is to change natural nature for and for man. Therefore, at least since the industrial revolution of the 18th century, design has been translating from the language of new technological solutions and scientific concepts into the language of things, mass-produced products that surround us everywhere. An internal combustion engine is engineering, a car is design; piezoelectric element — physics, lighter — design.

For Ginsberg, design is what distinguishes natural from cultural, natural objects from man-made, what we control from uncontrolled. In this sense, the GM-mosquitoes developed by the British company Oxitec are also a design product. Not giving viable offspring, in nature they successfully compete for mating with their wild counterparts and reduce the number of carriers of malaria and other dangerous infections. Golden rice could also be called a designer product, which contains a significant amount of beta-carotene and can solve the problem of vitamin A deficiency in some third world countries. And certainly the result of the design — is a synthetic strain of Mycoplasma laboratorium with an artificially obtained genome. New organisms with new functions are the result of the application of design thinking, only in the field of synthetic biology.

If design is a boundary that separates natural and cultural, then you should not assume that the areas on both sides of it are in conflict. The cultural grows out of the natural and improves it, at least from a human point of view. The natural is a product of evolution, which always responds to the challenges of the moment and is incapable of intelligent planning or design. Evolution is unfamiliar with the concept of “better”, modern bears are no better than dinosaurs, just better adapted to today’s conditions. The cultural world is developing, obeying the laws of human progress: an incandescent lamp is better than candles and torches, an LED is better than a tungsten filament.

However, in the field of the design of living things, until recently, man could only participate in evolution, directing the action of artificial selection — until we had in our hands the means of manipulating the genome, powerful tools of progress, which can be compared with the emergence of precise machine production. Today, these technologies are ready to change the “nature of nature”, once again transform the world. In the meantime, Daisy Ginsberg is trying to figure out how it will look like.

Like many biologists, the artist considers what is happening in this area — is a new revolution: “The cost of sequencing and DNA synthesis is falling rapidly. CRISPR genetic modification technologies have increased the range of available options. Something changes every year, ” Daisy said in a lecture at the PopTech forum. – GM microbes will most likely appear to clean up oil pollution or to normalize the acidity of the soil. The use of modified mosquitoes is already a reality. “

Fully synthetic organisms are products of technological progress, not biological evolution, and are not at all obliged to imitate natural beings. Having only a common biochemical basis with them, they are soon ready to stand out into their own branch on the tree of life. The super-kingdom is on a par with bacteria, archaea and eukaryotes, developing according to its own laws, which are set by both nature and people. The operation of these laws is the subject of main interest for Daisy Ginsberg. What would a plant look like when turned into a living factory? Design will answer this: like a specialized workshop producing a biopolymer part. When ripe, it drops out of the opened fruit and is ready to be assembled with other fruits of synthetic plants to give a whole useful device.

Significantly, in the 2009 Growth Assembly series of sketches, such a device turns out to be a herbicide sprayer — a vital tool for a person living in a world of complete freedom of biotechnology. The artist does not at all turn a blind eye to the potential dangers of such a future, and in the Synthetic Kingdom project she presented a number of rather frightening consequences, the prevention of which should be taken care of in advance. In Ginsberg’s view, the horizontal transfer of genes between synthetic and natural organisms can lead to the fact that microbes on the teeth will produce, for example, pigments, coloring them in bright colors, and the “genetic leak” from the bioelectronics factory to an epidemic of phosphorescent kidney stones.

However, this biotechnology does not stand out too much among human achievements: none of the former or existing technologies is devoid of negative side effects. The growth of modern civilization has already led to such a rapid decline in biodiversity, which scientists confidently call the Sixth Global Extinction in the history of life on Earth. But just as the previous steps in development made it possible to solve many problems caused by previous technologies, and synthetic biology is ready to “cure” the biosphere of the planet. Artificial slugs to restore the acid-base balance of the soil, artificial hedgehogs to spread seeds and even strange translucent organisms that infect plants and filter their juices to remove pathogens are another Daisy Ginsberg project and another touch of the biotech future. If you believe that progress really leads from good to better, then is is possible to agree that this is exactly what it will be.