We shape our world


From August 1, 2013, the new exhibition “Yours Synthetically” is all about the thematic topic of synthetic biology. Matthew Gardiner has put together the artistic works.

The creatures of Patricia Piccinini lead to many questions. (Photo: Patricia Piccinini)

Mr. Gardiner, as we are doing this interview you are collecting artistic works for the next exhibition at the Ars Electronica Center with the English title called “Yours Synthetically” that deals with synthetic biology. Why is this topic so relevant for us nowadays?

If we look at it purely from the scientific point of view we can say that even from Robert Hooke who used the microscope to discover the cell, the science of biology has continually developed alongside new technologies. The discovery of the double helix and the structure of DNA and all the other milestones of scientific progresses led to the understanding that we could cut and paste genetic information from one organism to another. Early genetic experiments progressed to experiments by modern biologist like Craig Venter, who took a synthetic genome put it into a cell and replaced the old genome that was in the cell, and it started to reproduce. They then examined the new cells and discovered that the synthetic genome had completely replaced the organic one. So to use the computer metaphor – which is quite popular in these studies – we took the hardware of the cell and we changed the software. For a biologist this is very crude. This idea of synthetic biology being an engineering approach to nature – what people find quite frightening – actually is too simplistic. Engineering implies that you know everything that can happen, like you would know that a building will stand even in an earthquake. But how can a synthetic biologist or engineer know what impact of this very long sequence can have on the organism, on the whole environment? The word engineering was kind of being cut out because many people were quite afraid of this – genetic engineering if you remember is what’s called during the past decades. Synthetic biology is partly an attempt by science to reframe this whole field and separate it from the public relations disaster of Genetic Engineering.

Can you give us an example of what possibilities we have with synthetic biology?

One speaker that we had at the Ars Electronica Festival last year was Prof. George Church from Harvard Medical School. He gave us an overview of the possibilities in this field we have, from incredible topics like de-extinction, bringing back extinct species. The method is to paste together different pieces of the genome, say from a woolly mammoth, by a hair found here and other parts found in bones, to rebuild a genome that can regrow. It’s quite a crazy idea to bring back a wooly mammoth by collecting all the information available, trying to put all this information into an elephant and have the elephant give birth. If you want to bring back a Neanderthal man you would do the same, collecting the information and then you would need a human woman to carry this child. A kind of interesting point is that we can’t make the hardware yet, like cells or parts that DNA needs to work, but the research area is active. At the moment we can use chunks of encoded DNA like Lego bricks, building parts with known functions. The idea of bio-bricks follows this idea in synthetic biology: You could use them to build your own organism with the features that you want. In some cases it has worked already: Taking the blue of one flower and putting it into a carnation to form a blue variation of it.

You are referring to Shiho Fukuhara and Georg Tremmel that got an honorary mention in Hybrid art at the Prix Ars Electronica 2009…

They genetically modified blue carnations and were confronted with the question: Did they break some copyrighting laws by taking a cut flower, growing it and putting it back into nature? Is this the wrong thing to do? Their new project is called “White out” that plans to remove the blue gene from the flower and turn it back into a white flower, and also make a kit for people to do the same. Again a lot of questions arise out of this complex topic like: what is this engineered and de-engineered plant now? Who can own a species? This artwork cuts to the core of many vital questions.

Johanna Schmeer created a mousetrap for genetic manipulated mice that are able to move in circles only (Photo: Christian Schmeer)

Synthetic biology is a bad thing?

No, there are also positive things in this field when we are looking towards solutions for our problems. But what you have for example is an independent scientist dumping a lot of chemicals into the ocean to see the effect because he thinks it’s a solution. It’s one of these things that people believe in technical progress; they believe that the next technical step that we have is going to solve our past problems we made with our past technology, so there is a continual repairing procedure that is going on. Instead there are people who are saying that we should use organic food, consume less and conduct other environmental discussions. There are two sides: People who want to solve the problems with technology and people who want to solve the problems through our behavior. Synthetic biology tends to fall on to the techno progressive side.

How can synthetic biology affect us?

Look at the role of medical insurance. Advances in genetic sequencing technologies, not necessarily synthetic biology, but part of the necessary toolset, have become much cheaper. Sequencing a human used to cost millions and took many months, now costs a thousand and takes a week. You can imagine, in the future your genome can be sequenced and insurance companies know from statistical medical studies that if you have this gene you have a 25% chance of having a certain type of cancer. Then they use that data to charge you more or less money for your health insurance. And this is quite a likely possibility. Currently there are no laws to protect the use of a single humans DNA. We don’t own our own DNA. We could use it as we like and reproduce but we don’t have ownership of who takes care of this data. Let’s have look at the Personal Genome Project that cost millions to sequence the first ten people and put all of the DNA information online as an open project. It was about looking at, sequencing and publishing complete genomes of people with the aim that with this knowledge we could learn something about individuals, diseases and how to use our genetic knowledge to improve and come up with curing AIDS, cancer and so on. There is the possibility that our genetic destiny is not fixed in stone, you could get a software upgrade that gives you immunity against viruses. The important part of the Personal Genome Project is to draw attention to discriminations by insurance companies and employers in the future. Imagine if you are getting a job and they could access to this data. They can say that, well, actually you are not good at this job, you have a below average of intelligence or you can’t do this particular task. There are all these aspects that deal with who we are as humans, how we use technology to take us forward in our unstoppable race to take us somewhere.

Sonja Bäumel makes the bacteria of our body visible. (Photo: Sonja Bäumel)

How do artists deal with this topic?

We invited artists to propose works through an open call, as part of an EU project called Studiolab www.studiolabproject.eu that aims to bring art and science together to make new discoveries and offer new perspectives and ways of working creatively. We selected a series of works that critically addressed the topic, some in challenging ways, and others that employed novel methods in collaboration with scientists. The exhibition will show many different artistic angles with very critical views and it will also show us some things we have not yet seen. For example, the artist Sonja Bäumel (AT/NL) is doing a residency here and is interested in the bacteria that live with us. In each human body there is something like two kilograms of bacteria. A massive amount of genetic information living in our bodies and each has its own independent genome, we are not only living with our own DNA but also with the bacteria’s. There’s a special kind of sensing that takes place in bacteria called quorum sensing. She is working with Dr Manuel Selg, a biologist at FH Wels. He is a consultant for the Biolab at the Ars Electronica Center. They put the focus on quorum sensing where bacteria cells send small pieces of chemical information to each other and communicate. It’s quite a new topic in science and biology and they try to make use of this feature and to make bacteria that glow a little bit when this sensing takes place. She has done full body imprints, lies down in the jelly and the bacteria from her body goes on to the jelly and then grows. The bacteria are put on a medium where they love to grow; they are kept warm and wet. The first experiments were followed by a project where she visualizes the bacteria of human hands from people with different backgrounds and working environments. She wants to see how the bacteria from people of different backgrounds look like, not the genetic difference but the bacterial difference. Where they live, how they live, what they have just done, did they just go for a run, did they just have sex, did they do something else, do they working in a factory, do they work with animals? For this quite interesting project she builds a new organism that can glow just for this artwork. We have another perspective: How do artists use these current forms of technology to examine and understand nature, it’s a duality of science and art.

Scientific tools do not need to be expensive. Here a genegun of Rüdiger Trojok (Photo: Martin Malthe Borch)

What is the aim of the exhibition?

I can give you a short overview what is currently happening in this project. We are still working on it, some of the topics you can expect are DNA input/output, DNA as media, hybridity, legal and ethics, and citizen science, some of them are very heavy, very serious topics. We think that the general public needs to have an understanding of what this could mean for them. Because most times people say “Oh, it’s too hard, I don’t understand”, but we are trying to bring it to an understandable point – in a way we could do this is with artworks and design works that clearly reveal the possibilities of synthetic biology rather than a scientific paper that says “we can swap genome ABC with genome XYZ”, and no one understands what that means. Artists tend to think beyond the immediate research and also they don’t look within the frame of ‘where do I get my next research grant’, so they are prepared to bring up topics which are more challenging. This is positive for the sciences, too, because sciences also become aware of important social questions. What if it gets into to the wrong hands? No one wants to be the next Oppenheimer. How could it be used for us and against us? There are not that many new problems in terms of the genetic engineering. Things just got cheaper. It costs a thousand euros to sequence a human genome; ten years ago it cost a million. And when it’s getting cheaper again, some of the things we were afraid ten years ago, are now getting closer and closer. We need a human consortium that is arguing for genetic privacy. Another aspect is to show the Do-it-Yourself aspect of today where scientists use normal technology to create very cheap versions of a gene gun for example that costs 50 euros instead of 15.000. One of the strategies of the DIY people is that they have a hacker mentality, not the code breaking illegal type, but the tinkerer problem solving type. They find technologies and reverse engineer them to use the resources they have available.  They create open source toolkits and software platforms to build the tools that they need at much cheaper prices than laboratory grade equipment. They also share those designs to other enthusiasts in the community. Biosecurity is highly restrictive in scientific labs, because they must follow the letter to the law, but in smaller garage locations things can be more risky. So the groups in Europe are visibly encouraging and cultivating strong ethical and safety views in their communities, and at the same time pursuing ambitious and new science. They are like the early computer hobbyists of who’ve been around since the 1970’s, learning from the ground up, teaching themselves, and making stuff they think is worthwhile.

Why did you choose the working title “Yours Synthetically”?

“Yours sincerely” is a typical way to sign a letter in English. “Yours Synthetically” is to reflect that we are in an age of reading and writing DNA. Before it was very expensive and we needed special research facilities, now we are in the age where almost anyone can start writing and working on their own genome projects. The title highlights a new type of communication with nature. We make a change, nature gives us back the message, we read it and then we write again. I sincerely hope that our efforts are towards the best for our species and planet as a whole. “Yours Synthetically” is also reminds us that whatever the results of synthetic biology are they will be “yours”, all of ours to share. We are all connected in this relationship. We should care about this topic. It’s a technology that requires an extremely responsible and mature mentality. The public should understand this field, not in an alarmist way, but with an overall perspective that allows them to openly debate.

Matthew Gardiner (AU) is member of the Ars Electronica Futurelab and deals with the research focus of the “Functional Aesthetics” including the areas of aesthetics, materials and kinetics.

The exhibition “Yours Synthetically” will be opened on August 1, 2013, 6:30 pm, at the Ars Electronica Center.