Tuesday, May 10, 2011

[Yasmin_discussions] ART & SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY: some answers regarding SYNTH-ETHICS

Dear Yasminers, hi Laura and Howard,

there have been some reactions to my post announcing the SYNTH-ETHICS
exhibition opening here at the Natural History Museum in Vienna, on
friday 13th, and which is accompanied by the BIO:FICTION film festival
and conferences:


Despite the stress to actually set up the exhibition here right now, I
want to answer some points.

As I wrote, SYNTH-ETHIC is meant to be "an exhibition that presents
art works related to the new field of Synthetic Biology and its
historical and epistemological roots", questioning the very notion of
the "synthetic" and exploring the areas of tension between molecular
biology and ecology, architecture and biochemistry, cybernetics and

Therefore, both Laura and Howard are right to bring up the question of
the actual art media, material techniques, and therefore the question
of how to define what I usually call "media adequacy", when they ask:

> Am I correct in understanding that the works featured in the
> exhibition are not,
> in a material sense, synthetic biology but relate to this emerging
> field
> conceptually? Could you elaborate if the exhibition includes any
> living
> synthetic bio artworks developed by artists?


> I was hoping to also see works that not only loosely relate to
> synthetic
> biology... . By capitalising on emerging
> technologies too quickly, do we end up metaphorically mapping art
> works from
> diverse areas onto a desired category? What artists out
> there are currently developing a synthetic biology practice and what
> are
> they producing?

These - valid - questions imply that it could be clearly defined what
the "emerging field" of Synthetic Biology is exactly "in the material
sense." If we could answer this question that it is mainly about the
most often popularized buzzwords we hear - "biobrick, iGem, minimal
genome... (sorry for the caricature)" - then, probably I would think
that Tuur van Balen's artwork would probably the only art project
among the works staged in SYNTH-ETHICS that does include SB (here: two
biobricks) "in the material sense" of genetic circuits designed or
used following engineering principles in order to be able to actually
alter the functioning of a living organism - here: pigeons; http://www.tuurvanbalen.com/projects/pigeon-dor

Now, the exhibition is thought to be an opportunity to think about the
very notion of what Synthetic Biology actually is, out of which
different disciplines it is patchworked together, and why we can find
here so many historical and epistemological forerunners converging
that let us reflect upon the very fact that the term "Synthetic
Biology" itself is actually already 100 years old. As Ellen Fox-Keller
has argued that Stéphane Leduc, who actually coined the term in 1910
(with a certain focus on the growth of cristals), studied artificial
cell division and life-like constructions, produced with inorganic
molecules only, and showing "dramatic similitude to the growth and
form of ordinary vegetable and marine life." According to Fox-Keller -
and to the science historical writing of Luis Campos a little bit
later - even Jaques Loeb's concepts in the late 19th century qualify
already for being the "engineering standpoint" in biology.

I'm probably not telling you something very new, as you seem to dive
quite deeply into the epistemological groundings of SB in your own
research, but: In a very influent and much discussed paper from 2008,
Victor de Lorenzo and Antoine Danchin have actuelly questioned whether
"synthetic biology can really be called a new field" or if it is "just
the intensification of the genetic engineering of organisms that
biologists have been carrying out since the 1970." They also analyse -
quite ironically - the anglo-saxon emphasis on the "newnessfactor" of
SB as a trendy and funding-worthy discipline, and a more continental
(European) approach to see it actually as a chance for an
interdisciplinary approach of converging technoscientific fields that
include engineering, computing, modelling, molecular biology,
evolutionary genomics, more traditional biotechnologues, orthogonal/
artificial and origins of life research, protocells, protein modelling
etc, going much beyond the vision that MIT's Registry of Standard
Biological Parts (since 2003) would represent the status quo of the
difinition of this still quite unclear field.

Following the same veine, science philosopher Hans-Jörg Rheinberger
(Director Max-Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin)
has recently argued that SB to him actually appears to be more a
funding strategy than a paradigm shift (to be published in the Berlin
Brandenbourg Academies annual) and that the term bioengineerung would
be largely sufficicient. He pointed to John Pickstone's book "Ways of
Knowing" to encourage strategies of long-term historical analyses that
would allow to avoid the "newness trap".

Now, SYNTH-ETHIC does not want to go too deep into these polemics but
raise awareness that - despite the very interesting developments such
as the iGem or the mentioned "Synthetic Aesthetic" initiatives etc -
apparently "older" disciplines may be those which 'make up' SB. In
this sense, and given (as a prominent example) Craig Venter's
synthesis of a completely functional bacteria genome in 2010, we may
ask for example inhowfar even late 19th century studies of Bütschli's
protoplasmic structures still feed - conceptually as well as
materially - nowadays protocell research as a starting point to
actually create a cell itself that could serve as a "chassis" for the
most often mentioned 'genetic circuits' - and even this vocabulary is
already inherent of Jacob's and Monod's from the 1970.

Actually curating and organizing an exhibition with art works only
that exclusively use synthetic biology as living devices in a gallery
setting is certainly a a challenge to be undertaken, hoping that the
current experimentations - which, as we know, still most often stay in
the evocative, metaphorical realm or in that of fictious design - give
rise to a "critical mass" of art projects with though-through critical
potential and aesthetic qualities beyond that of being able to catch
up fast with a new trend. Here, I fully join Howard's argument, I guess.

Now, indeed the artworks in SYNTH-ETHIC do "in the material sense" use
and stage, and not only metaphorically refer, to those pratices that
may converge in the SB approach today. Some examples:
Adam Brown restages an origins of life experiment that stage a
miniature model of the earth today. Roman Kirschner's "Roots"
materializes principles central to the precursors of synthetic biology
and their concept of programmable circuits and biological information
modules, by employing a model of British cyberneticist Gordon Pask,
who in the 1950s attempted to build a chemical computer on the basis
of iron crystals formed in an iron-oxide solution under exposure to
electrical current, resulting in dynamic crystal genesis alludes to a
time in the early 20th century when the growth of crystal formations
was often compared to the origins of organic life forms. Rachel
Armstrong adresses the issue of protocells and stages live the
formation of precursors of living cells formed by the innate chemistry
of molecules existing at the interface between oil and water. Tuur van
Balen uses "biobricks" to lower the pH level and other to make
bacteria express lipase to, as a desired effet, turn pigeon's faeces
into a biological soap. Joe Davis' (right now still living - we may
have to kill it as it is transgenic) brand new Bacterial Radio
exhibits bacterially-grown platinum/germanium electrical circuits to
listen to AM stations. James Tour and Stephanie Chanteau's NanoPutians
(materially present in Vienna) use tools of chemical synthesis to
design anthropomorphic molecules, and remind us that synthetic
chemistry and systhetic biology are linked.

Thanks for the remarks, hope to see the discussion going on - and to
see some of you in Vienne this weekend,


PS: Some of the papers mentioned above:

Victor de Lorenzo and Antoine Danchin: Synthetic biology: discovering
new world and new words. EMBO reports Vol. 9 No. 9, 2008.
Fox Keller, Evelyn: What does Synthetic Biology have to do with
biology? BioSocieties 4/2009, p.291-302.
Matthias Heinemann and Sven Panke: Synthetic Biology - putting
engineering into biology. Bioinformatics Vol. 22 No 22/2006, p.

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