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Tales of Synthetic Biology

More informations in the report produced along the process.

I imagined an activity composed of cards that allows participants to ‘create’ personalised engineered ‘thing’. They first would have to choose an ‘organism’ and then create a sequence in order to modify it; and finally explain the story behind their creation. Encouraged to reflect on the implications and outcomes (positive and negative) of such creation, it would give both insights of what the general public inspirations for synthetic biology are and a vision of the hopes and fears of the society. Moreover, it would introduce the basic grammar of DNA and its visualisation.
The aim of this activity is not only to inform participants about the processes of DNA design but also to invite reflection on what it means to design through living organisms.

 

 

I have conducted a series of interview with biologists to determine what how they would communicate the DNA design process to the general public: how to keep the process simple but accurate and what could be an interesting interaction to understand the principles of synthetic biology (the same interviews helped to develop the ‘Dominoes’ project).

The final design is a set of cards composed of 25 organisms cards (plus 15 blank ones), 8 promoters, 15 coding sequences (CDS) (plus 15 blank ones) & 8 terminator, as well as 53 story cards, allowing the participants to explain the story behind their creation.

I have tested them during 5 sessions (more than 20 people from designers, artists, biologists, engineers, technicians…) and twice during Louise Mackenzie ‘Transformation – Thinking Through Making With Life transgenic bio-art’ workshops at ASCUS lab Summerhall as part of Edinburgh International Science Festival 2017.

 

 

In total I collected: 36 stories, 10 new CDSs and 5 new organisms.

There is no clear tendency in the answers, same range of fantasy story (8%) than proposal for health (7%). Being able to gather more data would help to identify a trend (if there is one). I could imagine developing a webapp, where users could create in the same way (with drag and drop) sequences and write stories link to them. Then, they could share them on social media.
In addition, it would allow to collect thoughts, reactions from the comments and like section. A very small questionnaire after the activity could also help to gather the data from the type of story produced, allowing live data analysis.

Half of the stories are human-centred, while only one quarter would modify human. It suggests that most of the modi cation imagined would be beneficial for humans even if an animal or a plant is the target of the modi cation.

Even though I encouraged to reflect on the consequences (advantages, risks…) on the story card, only 3 stories have a sentence about it. To get more insight on this aspect and encourage broader reflection, designing a longer activity would be necessary.
The sequence and the story would be the first chapter, then the participant of the workshop could have to spot what are the elements part of the ecosystem of this organism and relations with some aspects of human society: cultural effects, group behaviour, social change, social trade-offs, political and economic systems, social conflict, global interdependence… It would be asked to reflect on these connections and establish where could be the potential risks, dangers, uncertainties but also advantages, benefits or values. Each group could analyse the sequence of other groups. From that – chapter 3 – they would come back to their original design and have to change it, taking into consideration the observations from chapter 2. A second iteration of
the second chapter and a third iteration of the sequence could be considered. It would help to illustrate that each choice creates new conditions and entanglements with other factors which result in more constrains in the design.
The aim would be to emphasise the interconnectivity of ecosystems and human society, and how synthetic biology could become an important source of disturbance and that each new design should be carefully considered.

 

 

 

In order to allow to reflect on some of the stories already created, promote the project and share the ideas, I have decided to illustrate some of the cards. We could imagine a series of ‘postcards from the future’ as a series of illustration, promoted on a dedicated website or in an exhibition during a scientific conference, where these stories could be the starting point to discuss public opinion and ideas on synthetic biology as well as the implications of the discipline in human society and on natural ecosystem.

 

 

The next step in the development of this project would be to redesign the cards and create a game. Some aspects have already been explore with the help of Erika Szymanski, Research Fellow, Science, Technology & Innovation Studies at the University of Edinburgh.