Synthetic biology is all about re-engineering living organisms to make them do stuff we would find useful — like eating oil spills or excreting superfuels. It’s a tall order, but we’re well on our way already. Still, a slightly easier tactic would be to just tweak the design of organisms that already exist, rather than building synthetic genomes from scratch. Designers Daisy Ginsberg and James King and their scientist colleagues at Cambridge University did exactly that with a project called E.Chromi, which turned e.coli bacteria into living, color-coded sensors that can be “programmed” to secrete an array of bright hues in the presence of certain chemicals. In the future, E.Chromi-like bugs could live in your gut and give you an early-warning signal for an oncoming illness by turning your poop blue. (Yup, they’re serious.)
The Cambridge team accomplished this feat by designing an array of standardized DNA building blocks called BioBricks. The name is no accident — scientists and genetic engineers can “snap” these BioBricks together in simple patterns, insert them into simple microorganisms like e.coli, and turn them into tiny machines. In E.Chromi’s case, “bacteria could be programmed to do useful things, such as indicate whether drinking water is safe by turning red if they sense a toxin.” The E.Chromi BioBricks are open-source and listed in a genetic “parts database” run by MIT. “The colour generator bricks are being used in labs around the world, integrated into other systems and circuits,” Ginsberg tells Co.Design.
Designers with scientists are asking: How would you redesign nature?
E. chromi won the Grand Prize at the 2009 International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition and was nominated for a 2011 Brit Insurance Design of the Year Award, but Ginsberg hasn’t been sitting on her laurels. She currently working as a Design Fellow at Synthetic Aesthetics, a multidisciplinary research project by the University of Edinburgh and Stanford University that joins designers with scientists to explore answers to the question: How would you redesign nature?
“Traditional” synthetic biology (if such a new discipline could even be said to have traditions), is focused on control — “about realising the work of design into a functional reality,” Ginsberg explains. But nature may not play by the rules that engineers are used to, and if synthetic biology is going to yield useful, mainstream technology and products, a broader design philosophy has to be implemented. “Synthetic biologists talk about ‘design’, but the exact use and meaning of this word in the context is quite fuzzy here,” Ginsberg says. “Do we want a version of nature that is purely about function and control, or should other forms of creative, social and cultural thinking be at play when we are redefinining the world around us?”
Should nature reflect creative, social and cultural thinking?
In that regard, even relatively simple projects like E.Chromi have an almost user-focused aspect to them in addition to the formidable engineering challenges that must be solved in order for them to function at all. Instead of just demonstrating a proof of concept that an e.coli could be induced to emit pre-programmed colors, the E.Chromi team carefully selected actual, specific colors for the bacteria’s “output” that are optimized for visual interpretation by humans.
In Ginsberg’s view, this is the kind of design thinking that must be applied to synthetic biology as a whole, if it’s ever going to make a big dent in solving our problems. Geniuses like Craig Venter may invent the synthetic-biology version of a computer, but it’ll take product designers like Jony Ive to get us to the iMac level. And innovators like Daisy Ginsberg are leading the way.