Genetic engineering is now a thirty year old technology. For reference, over a similar period of time, modern computing machines went from exclusive objects used to design weapons of mass destruction, to the now ubiquitous panoply of personal computing devices that support mass communication and construction. Inspired by this and many other past examples of the overwhelmingly constructive uses of technology by individuals, we have been working over the past five years to develop new tools that will help to make biology easy to engineer. We have also been working to foster a constructive culture of future biological technologists, who can reliably and responsibly conceive, develop, and deliver biological technologies that solve local problems.
This talk will introduce current best practice in biological engineering, including an overview of how to order synthetic DNA and how to use and contribute standard biological parts to an open source collection of genetic functions. The talk will also discuss issues of human practice, including biological safety, biological security, ownership, sharing, and innovation in biotechnology, community organization, and perception across many different publics. My hope is that the conferees of 24C3 will help me to understand how to best enable an overwhelmingly constructive hacker culture for programming DNA.
This video is from the 24th Chaos Communication Congress.
E. chromi is a collaboration between designers and scientists in the new field of synthetic biology. In 2009, seven Cambridge University undergraduates spent the summer genetically engineering bacteria to secrete a variety of coloured pigments, visible to the naked eye. They designed standardised sequences of DNA, known as BioBricks, and inserted them into E. coli bacteria.
Each BioBrick part contains genes selected from existing organisms spanning the living kingdoms, enabling the bacteria to produce a colour: red, yellow, green, blue, brown or violet. By combining these with other BioBricks, bacteria could be programmed to do useful things, such as indicate whether drinking water is safe by turning red if they sense a toxin. E. chromi won the Grand Prize at the 2009 International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition (iGEM).
Designers Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and James King worked with the team to explore the potential of this new technology, while it was being developed in the lab. They designed a timeline proposing ways that a foundational technology such as E. chromi could develop over the next century. These scenarios include food additives, patenting issues, personalised medicine, terrorism and new types of weather. Not necessarily desirable, they explore the different agendas that could shape the use of E. chromi and in turn, our everyday lives. This collaboration has meant that E. chromi is a technology that has been designed at both the genetic and the human scale, setting a precedent for future collaborations between designers and scientists.
Design: Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg & James King
Animation - Cath Elliot (Little Giant Pictures)
Music - Matthew Irvine Brown
Illustration - Alice Hoult