MAKING_LIFE 2014–2015

W 1 Day 1
posted by admin on 23 May 2014

The first day of what promises to be an intellectually stimulating week-long workshop has just concluded.  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.

Capping off the mornings necessities was the majestic meeting of trance and scientific mysticism (courtesy of 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, Catt 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.

After the break Tarja Knuuttila delivered a lecture which traced the epistemology of models. Models are mathematical, oftentimes statistical, constructs of a domain being investigated. They help rationalise (for want of a better word) that which is being studied or synthesised, aiding in predictions about a systems behaviour when certain starting parameters are changed. The use of models is particularly relevant to Synthetic Biology - the modelling of a systems behaviour for predictive and optimising purposes is the purvey of the sister discipline of Systems Biology. Systems Biology is predicated on the power of models and simulations (rarely are the two mutually exclusive) to aid the progress of empirical knowledge. More importantly, it is the combination of modelling with recombinant biology that distinguishes Synthetic Biology from the efforts of genetic engineering.

one of 3000 visions of the Whole Cell Viz cell simulation

Knuuttila's at times dense presentation was both informative and thought provoking. The Goodwin Model (describing the oscillations of Circadian Rhythms) was one of the first instances of a form of abstraction native to one domain (in this case, it's unclear if physics, cybernetics, or electrical engineering have the ultimate claim to fame) was applied to the molecular mechanisms within an organism's individual cells. Goodwin was motivated in his efforts by his desire for a statistical explanation for the mechanism for biology - a domain of mathematics that continues to exert huge influence on the progress and movement of the field of molecular, computational and synthetic biology. Knuuttila's presentation illustrated that scientists often possess the most humility when the use of models was concerned. And yet her presentation illustrated that this knowledge can be specialised - physicists usually undertake the modelling exercise. The unnamed concern has to be - is the model ever taken for a rule of thumb take on reality? Do engineers satisfice with models in a manner not dissimilar to cargo culting?  A lot of the material underscored the themes signalled earlier by Catts - and indelibly articulated by fictional contrarian Ian Malcolm - "God help us, we're in the hands of engineers."

Synthetic biology was born with the broad goal of engineering or ‘wiring’ biological circuitry ... for manifesting logical forms of cellular control. [SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY: APPLICATIONS COME OF AGE]

An interesting notion emerged on the scientific use of fiction. Here, Knuuttila draws from Elowitz in stressing that it is through design that you provoke new questions which couldn't had been envisaged by simply analysing the natural systems.

In the subsequent discussion Orkhan offered that there may be other paradigms, 'model free' as it were. BioBricks (the repository around which the iGEM industry has grown) could be considered in such a way - the domain is explored in an application driven manner. This can be analogously comprehended with reference to the history of aviation - engineers could get the jet plane into the air successfully long before they had a model of propulsion and thermodynamics that accurately accounted for why it worked.

As we entered the final stretch of the day 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)

The day concluded with a group engagement with agar plates. The agar plate is a sensor - hermetically sealed until we decide to test it's receptive jelly against the atmosphere (and attendant microorganisms). The agar is an empirical apparatus, predisposed to nurturing certain microorganisms and thus rendering others invisible. The petri dish's sensor like capacities noted, the group set about finding the most revolting niches that could accommodate a cotton swab, in order to innoculate the plates.

Check out the gallery below for more pictures from the event!