Taking biological design beyond GMO controversy and DNA hype
Natsai Chieza dyes silk with living bacteria. A UK-based textile designer working in John Ward’s microbial molecular biology lab at University College London, Chieza works with the common soil bacteria Streptomyces, which can produce a range of pigments. She grows these microbes in 150 millimeter petri dishes, carefully folding large pieces of fabric into the circular dishes. The dyes transfer to the silks as the bacteria grow and excrete the pigmented molecules. After heat-treatment to pasteurize the fabric, the color-fast bacterial dye leaves beautiful rorschach patterns on the silk.
Speaking at the Biofabricate symposium organized by Suzanne Lee of Biocouture, researchers at Microsoft, and the synthetic biology community group SynBioBeta, Chieza’s stories of working with microbes offered a striking contrast to many of the talks by synthetic biologists and engineers. Where synthetic biologists spoke of automation, “deskilling,” and removing the possibility of both human error and biological unpredictability from their designs, Chieza emphasized the importance of serendipity, craft, and process. She found pigmented bacteria living in the soil of her garden, and identified a new color when mold accidentally “contaminated” her petri dishes. Though she works alongside research scientists, she forges her own experimental path to these findings; she recounted learning a particular lab technique that was taking her several weeks to master. Graduate students working at the bench nearby told her she could change her technique and be done in just a few hours. But she didn’t want to just finish quickly, she wanted to “learn what it really means to work with biology.”
For Chieza, learning to work with biology meant adapting old lab techniques and creating her own methods to find, domesticate, and nurture the pigment-producing bacteria. Unlike many other contemporary designers and engineers working with biological materials, Chieza is not interested in the techniques for manipulating the bacteria’s DNA directly. In an interview with Wired, Chieza comments that using genetically engineering organisms to produce pigments is “fine, but that would be quite boring for me.”
Bacteria already produce and secrete an enormous range of pigmented molecules; the challenge is in finding them and developing the techniques of growing them and transferring their pigments to fabric.
Chieza has identified species that produce a range of colors, and she can coax the bacteria to change hue and intensity depending on the pH of the medium, the sugars she feeds them, the temperature of the incubator she grows them in, and which strains are grown together. She guides and shapes the growth of living cells, altering their behavior and the expression of their genes without touching their DNA.
If you’ve spent any time reading comments on articles about genetically modified organisms, you’ve probably seen some variation of the claim that “we’ve been making GMOs for thousands of years!” Plant and animal breeding is an exercise in artificial evolution, radically transforming the genomes of those organisms in the process. Practiced over millennia, such breeding changed an inedible grass into corn and wolves into today’s dog breeds. Ancient “genetic engineers” are said to have altered the genomes of microorganisms they couldn’t have imagined existing — domesticating the strains of yeast that ferment grains into beer and bread.
Compared to the new technologies of genetic engineering, can we really say that selective breeding is creating “GMOs”? With today’s synthetic biology, the “trial-and-error” traditional practices of breeding are said to be giving way to precision genetic control. Scientists and engineers can now target particular gene sequences, design new cellular pathways, and synthesize entire chromosomes to spec.
Claims to the similarity between old and new techniques most often emerge when it is politically convenient — when claims to dazzling and revolutionary high-tech advances are met with skepticism and concern. I’m not interested in erasing differences between old and new methods for the sake of “winning” any comment thread arguments, but I am fascinated about the spectrum of techniques that have made biological design possible, and how old and new might combine in interesting new ways. What can contemporary engineers learn from ancient “GMOs” and from designers like Chieza, who use different “trial-and-error” methods to shape biological systems to amazing effect?
Given the power of breeding to modify biology, what are we missing by focusing too narrowly on tools for precision engineering of DNA?
Find any article online about synthetic biology and you’re likely to see a stock photo of the DNA double helix in a shiny metallic blue, often drawn twisting in the wrong direction but shaded with very carefully rendered 3D textures. Add some 0’s and 1’s or a circuit diagram and the metaphor-laced image is complete. In these articles, DNA is the all-powerful “software” of the cell’s “hardware.” And with the power to cut, paste, and synthesize new strands, synthetic biologists are the “programmers” of life, wielding the awesome power of DNA.
This promise of DNA’s power comes after decades of promises conflating biological identity with DNA. 23andMe, a company that sequences small portions of customers’ genomes, today sells sequencing kits announcing “welcome to you” on the outside — you are your DNA. Likewise, companies selling custom DNA sequences are said to be “literally printing life.” Based on the premise that DNA is literally life (sometimes your life), DNA technology is promised to lead to untold technological riches. With the tools of biotechnology getting cheaper and faster every day, genome-tailored medicine and precision engineered organisms creating food, fuel, and medicine are perennially “just around the corner.” With these tools, we’re told, biology, via DNA, may finally become designable.
The Biofabricate conference was in part inspired by these promises. The Next at Microsoft blog states:
At its most basic level, biofabrication is about manipulating the tiny computational engines that exist within living cells, and using them to either generate new behaviors at the cellular level, or to generate materials with desired properties.
But the most exciting speakers at the event weren’t talking about programming cells, they were designers like Chieza, demonstrating the power of full-bodied biology, not just DNA.
In O’Reilly Radar, Mike Loukides raved about Biofabricate. “Biological products have always seemed far off,” he writes, acknowledging the distant promises of DNA-based technology. “But,” he continues, “they’re not: the revolution in biology is clearly here now, just unevenly distributed.” The designers and artists speaking at Biofabricate are using biology to create products, not promises: Chieza’s microbe-painted silks, the bacterially fused bricks of bioMASON, Mango Materials’ bioplastics, the fungal structures created by artist Phil Ross and his company Mycoworks, Amy Congdon’s Biological Atelier, and Suzanne Lee’s Biocouture. None mentioned DNA.
Like ancient plant and animal breeders, these designers are domesticating and shaping living organisms without directly accessing the underlying DNA sequences. But there’s also something very new about these products. If breeding exists on a spectrum connecting domestication and today’s synthetic biology, these designs lie along a different axis — one connecting “nature” and “nurture.” Rather than identifying and propagating DNA-based traits, through crosses or through transgenics, these designers are nurturing new products, creating new spaces for organisms to grow and thrive.
In her Biofabricate talk, bioMASON founder and CEO Ginger Krieg Dosier mused, “What if factories looked like greenhouses?” What if we could make materials and objects like bricks, furniture, and clothing by creating the right growing conditions and nurturing them as they take shape? This is biodesign that is less like breeding and more like pleaching — weaving together vines and branches of plants as they grow to create shapes, hedges, tunnels, and even bridges. Living things grow and take shape, adapting to new spaces. DNA is an essential part of these living things and their environments, but it is inert without them.
At Biofabricate, Paula Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at the New York Museum of Modern Art, called for scientists to work closely with designers because, “designers are the enzymes that allow the world to metabolize progress.” In Antonelli’s view, the task of the contemporary designer is to transform advances from the lab into products that allow people to understand, debate, use and adapt them to their daily lives. What I saw at Biofabricate was designers catalyzing a different sort of reaction. They are not just making products, these designers are creating new ways of working with biology.