How would you design nature?

Synthetic Biology is a new approach to engineering biology, generally defined as the application of engineering principles – such as standardization and modularity - to the complexity of biology. The aim is to 'make biology easier to engineer', through the design and construction of new biological parts, devices, and systems, and the re-design of existing biological systems for useful purposes, from biofuels to new medical applications. Biology is becoming a new material for engineering - a new technology for design and construction.

What is Synthetic Biology?

Synthetic biology involves understanding and modelling natural entities and processes at the molecular scale; modifying existing organisms such as bacteria through intentional design and construction; building synthetic organisms capable of accomplishing specified goals; and constructing new organisms from the bottom up.

Its pioneers hope to make biology something that can be designed and constructed in the same way electronic components are pieced together to produce working computers. By using standard biological parts – ‘biological bricks’ made of DNA - some synthetic biologists hope to simplify the making of useful organisms. Other scientists are attempting to design entirely new living systems - protocells - constructed from different biochemistry.

Design is central to synthetic biology, as the living world becomes a product of design and manufacturing choices, rather than evolutionary pressures alone. But designing nature is not straightforward. We tend to understand design in terms of tangible objects like telephones and buildings than in the realm of microscopic biology. It becomes much more complicated when the realm of design is living material.

What does it mean to design nature, and how do designers fit into the process of making machines from biology? Architects work with structural engineers, product designers work with mechanical engineers. Could synthetic biology - and the questions it raises about the synthetic construction of life - benefit from such interactions?

What is Synthetic Aesthetics?

Synthetic Aesthetics is an experimental, international research project between synthetic biology, art, design and social science, funded by the NSF and EPSRC. Run by the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and Stanford University, California, the project team comprises bioengineers Drew Endy (Stanford) and Alistair Elfick (Edinburgh), and social scientists Jane Calvert (Edinburgh) and Pablo Schyfter (Edinburgh), and designer/artist Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg. The project is explored in our book published by The MIT Press in 2014.

Synthetic biologists, like many engineers, are concerned with ‘design’. By instigating new collaborations, we are exploring shared and new territory between synthetic biology, art and design. In Synthetic Aesthetics, we ask: what does it mean to design nature, how might we design nature, and how might we design it well?

What insights can design offer in designing microscopic entities for a human-scale world? Can the exchange of skills and ideas enable the development of new forms of craft and collaboration? Can these collaborations inform and shape the developing field of synthetic biology? How might our contemporary understanding of art and design be challenged by interaction with synthetic biology?

Synthetic Aesthetics brought together leading synthetic biologists and internationally-renown artists and designers to explore designing, understanding and building the living world. Our residents come from all over the world and adopt different approaches to synthetic biology (from protocell to ‘BioBrick’ to plant science); and to art and design (architecture, bioart, art, industrial design, smell, music). During paired, intensive residencies from July to December 2010, residents spent two weeks in the laboratory and two weeks in their exchange partner's art or design studio.

The exchanges have been reciprocal, with both disciplines informing each other. Since 2010, our residents have continued to share their practice, knowledge and ideas, developing research of both scientific and art/design significance. Providing a framework for this ongoing discussion, Synthetic Aesthetics hopes these interactions will contribute to ongoing work in both communities, developing new spaces for practice, cooperation and debate.

Art and design can encourage thought and debate in unique and innovative ways -  enabling collaborative investigation beyond representation and visualisation - and opening up new areas in the process. Synthetic Aesthetics' social scientists, Pablo Schyfter and Jane Calvert, and Design Fellow Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg supported, documented and studied the exchanges. The residents' work and the issues their work raises – scientific, ethical, sociological, design and artistic - are all explored in our book.

Synthetic Aesthetics was initiated by Drew Endy, Jane Calvert and Alistair Elfick out of an unsual NSF/EPSRC IDEAS factory 'Sandpit' in 2009. The aims included informing new schools of art and design, new ways of teaching science and engineering, and innovative approaches to the study of synthetic biology in society, as well as challenging our understanding of art and design practice.

We continually share our findings, through talks, workshops and publications. In 2010, we ran a symposium at MIT's MediaLab, and a design workshop at iGEM 2010. In 2011, we developed Synthesis held at UCL in London in July, a pilot residential 6-day laboratory exchange for artists, designers, scientists and others in partnership with The Arts Catalyst, SymbioticA and UCL, with a grant from the Wellcome Trust. The outcomes of the residents have been exhibited around the world.