MAKING_LIFE 2014 - 2015

Synthetic Biology’s brief history and cultural amnesia
posted by sarah on 29 January 2016

20 workshop participants (numbering diverse disciplines among their respective professions and specialisms) opened the workshop with the requisite round table introductions and safety run down of the (really quite impressive!) Biophilia laboratory environment.


TALK: Synthetic Biology’s brief history and cultural amnesia

Oron Catts

Capping off the mornings necessities was the majestic meeting of trance and scientific mysticism (courtesy of one Oron Catts) above.

Oron Catts then unearthed a genealogy of the scientific disciplines and empirical forebears that shared (with synthetic biology) the stated aim of engineering the processes of life. A diverse parade of figures decorated this timeline - Francis Bacon's utopian text 'New Atlantis' sharing something in aspiration with the Wunderkammer. Curiosity cabinets were a means of arraying the diversity of life quite unlike the efforts of Linnaeus that followed them. Linnaeus provided history with the first formalisation (or, one could say, abstraction) of species (above).

Linnaeus begat the above curiosity, Reaumur's Artificial Mother (1750) a contraption that historically foreshadows contemporary industrial scale silos of GMOs. The historical precedents for compartmentalised life were common visual refrains throughout Catts' presentation, each serving to underscore the fact that this quote lurks in the backdrop of fears regarding synthetic biology's disposition towards living matter:

"Factory farming considers nature as an obstacle to be overcome”

Two important figures to the history of synthetic biology followed, Jacques Loeb, and Stephane Leduc. Leduc was the first to coin the term 'synthetic biology'—la biologie synthétique in the original— in his protocell experiments in 1912 (a fact that many who shill the term today are unaware of). Loeb is noteworthy in terms of how personal his disposition towards the life sciences echoes the current 'Single Engineering Paradigm' to which synthetic biology belongs. Loeb wished to pursue biology from an engineer's disciplinary view point, rather than the existing (then contemporary) analytical takes on living things.

In addition to outlining this important context, Catts set a provocative tone from the outset. A history of paradigmatic incursions upon the substrate of life itself provides food for thought for what role we motley crew of interdisciplinary practitioners are playing in the grander scheme of things. We were encouraged to consider the unintended consequences of synthetic biology - particularly in the context of a 'deep time' appreciation of Earth - the celestial body which has endured the presence of humanity and technology in a span of time so small (relative to the the Earth's history) as to be temporally negligible.

Oron Catts encouraged us to think hard about Synthetic Biology and its ramifications, in a wide ranging group discussion that took in iGEM, Model Organisms and the role of art and design practice alongside other entities (like Etc. Group) with a take and opinion on Synthetic Biology.

It was remarked that some of the notable points of critique against Synthetic Biology are not exclusive to it, and indeed are part of a wide range of scientific disciplines effected by corporatised higher education and science departments at the mercy of both translation centre science and ensuring that enough hype is whipped up around their research to justify that next grant application. In discussion around iGEM (where it can cost up to €70000 for a winning application) it was noted that the fundraising that now surrounds such endeavours is a microcosm of the funding precarity that envelopes science.

Perhaps what separates Synthetic Biology from other areas of technology (with which it shares problematics of late-capitalist inequality and anthropocene environmental devastation) is the amount of resources that go into communicating this one sub-discipline of science.

Catts showed us a video of Paul Berg, who elaborated on the chain of events preceding the Asilomar Conference - a landmark event in the history of molecular biology, and synthetic biology.

The event succeeded because the gathered experts reached out to legal ethicists and the press - they ensured 50 reporters of various affiliation were present. The event was notable not just in the consensus secured but also in both the self organisation of the scientific academic community, and the meaningful involvement of different disciplines during the conference itself. Catts begged an important question - could a similar event happen again in contemporary circumstance?

(and yes, of course we watched Paul Berg's other notable contribution to science)