In Synthetic Aesthetics, researchers and designers team up to present an exciting way of learning from nature
SYNTHETIC biology is not like other sciences. At its first big conference, held just 10 years ago at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the startling initial premise was that life is simply too complicated for biotechnologists to easily modify and that it would be better if engineers rebuilt life from scratch so the created organisms did exactly what was required.
The youthful enthusiasm that powered the field, and brought together engineers, biologists, computer scientists, physicists and biohackers, persists today. There have been a few major achievements, most notably last month's creation of a computer-designed yeast chromosome. And before that, the creation of the first synthetic cell.
Alongside this big science, researchers have built libraries of standard DNA code that controls different things inside cells. The dream is that one day it will be easy to design novel organisms using DNA as the programming language. Synthetic biology's headline-grabbing achievement is its annual International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, which attracts hundreds of student teams to reprogram organisms. Last year's winners re-engineered the bacterium E. coli to recycle gold from electronic waste. At iGEM, the defensive attitude of biotech is replaced with one of turn up, take part, and talk.
As artist Daisy Ginsberg puts it, design "is about possibility", the unimagined things that life could be. Synthetic biology, she writes, has been addressing "humanity's needs" – limitless fuel, for example – rather than "our needs as individual, diverse and complex humans". This is refreshing: worries about the separation between the top-down design of the future and those who must live with the designs are quite rare in science.