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The Field of Synthetic Biology Runs on Speculative Fiction

Scientists who are working on bioengineering techniques must realize that their work speculates a future where their breakthroughs will be embraced by society.

Gene editing and new biological engineering techniques have allowed our minds to run wild: In the last few years, we've seen proposals to build North Face jackets out of synthesized spider silk, grow human organs within pigs for transplantation, de-extinct long dead animals, and use animal-human "hybrid organs" to prevent or treat disease. We've seen projects proposing leather made from humans, lab-grown, cruelty-free meat, and have begun to grapple with a future that might include both real dragons and DIY pathogens cooked up in someone's basement.

Biofabricate, a synthetic biology conference held in Manhattan on Thursday, began with the message that journalists must be careful not to sensationalize an art project that used real science to look at whether it'd one day be possible for a human woman to give birth to an endangered dolphin.

"I think it's very important to get projects like this out into mainstream press, but then you have clickbait, and these projects lend themselves to sensationalization," Anthony Dunne, a professor of design and emerging technology at Parsons, told the crowd at the Biofabricate conference Tuesday. "There's a tendency for these projects to be hyperrealistic so they can suspend disbelief, but once it moves into the media it loses reference and framing."

That journalists shouldn't say humans-having-dolphin-babies is right around the corner is a point well taken. But this idea that journalists should not sensationalize artists' work extends back to scientists, many of whom say that artists shouldn't sensationalize their work, either.

Biodesign speculations are often based on real science. Image: Ai Hasegawa

It's an idea that is oft-repeated. A paper published earlier this year by five synthetic biologists in Nanoethics noted that "visions of potential futures are distorted and relayed to laymen and scholars lacking a clear vision of what is actually happening on today's benches, they are often mistaken for applications on their way."

But there is a common thread connecting the scientists working on perfecting gene editing tools like CRISPR/Cas9, the entrepreneurs commercializing those tools, the designers and artists provoking thought about where these technologies may one day lead us, and the media professionals informing the public about all of this work: Synthetic biology is inherently speculative fiction.

"We artists are engaged in speculation, but scientists are just as much."

The researchers who published the Nanoethics paper do eventually acknowledge this reality, noting that "fantasies initiated or stoked by the media play a major role in the development of synbio."

Biofabricate. Image: Evan Rodgers for Motherboard

The paper (and there are many similar ones) notes that most real-world synthetic biologists are "designing tools that could allow us to make challenging applications possible." It is the responsibility of journalists and artists, then, to imagine where technologies whose fundamental purpose is to reengineer life might one day take us.

Scientists and scientists-turned businesspeople have very real plans to reengineer mosquitoes to eradicate themselves, or use CRISPR to modify babies before they are born. Companies want to synthesize THC in engineered yeast cells, grow synthetic rhino horns, and commercialize cruelty free, lab-grown burger. The speculation is that these techniques or products will do more good than harm, or will improve public health or the environment, or be commercially successful, or be desired by the public. Artists and news articles and criticism bring these speculations to the public at large, and wrestle with everything from the utopian fantasies to the more troubling concerns of what would go wrong.

From Heather Dewey-Hagborg's "Stranger Visions." The "portrait" that was created from a cigarette butt is shown above. Image: Heather Dewey-Hagborg

Daisy Ginsberg, a biodesigner and artist, told me at Biofabricate that scientists regularly scoff at her work, which has looked at how we might repopulate ecosystems with synthetic biology after a sixth extinction event.

"I presented at SynBioBeta, which is one of the biggest conferences for the field, and afterwards a scientist came on stage and said 'OK these designers can just dream, but we're doing the real science at the lab bench," she added. "I was like—this whole conference, this whole industry is a speculation. It's financial speculation, it's narrative speculation about a burgeoning industry. That's what my Ph.D is about. We artists are engaged in speculation, but they are just as much."

"If some of it becomes real because of processes of science and of capitalism—which we have nothing to do with—some of us care about that, others of us not as much"

The best example of speculative science becoming speculative art becoming scary reality in short order was illustrated by a 2012 art project called "Stranger Visions." Artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg collected chewed gum, cigarette butts, and stray pieces of hair from public places, analyzed the traces of genetic material left on them, and turned them into portraits of what the people who left the objects behind. The project became something of a viral media sensation; there are now two companies—Parabon NanoLabs and Identitas—that create "portraits" of suspected criminals from left-behind DNA for law enforcement.

"The primary role of the art is to open up questions of debate," Dewey-Hagborg said at Biofabricate. "In this case, the research I was drawing on is the same research that the companies who do this drew on. It's not as if I gave them the idea, but I think there's something to be said for noticing this research is happening, seeing where you think it will go, and having that conversation before it becomes a reality."

"Right now we have cruelty-free meat. It's called nuts."

It's not too premature, then, to begin discussing the merits of near-term projects like re-engineering mosquitoes, which is already a real plan for dealing with Zika in South Florida and is expected to move forward. It's also not too premature for artists to say, 'hey—scientists are actively working on tools that could one day allow women to give birth to dolphins,' and it's not "sensationalist" for journalists to report on that art, so long as the article doesn't suggest such things are imminent.

It's also OK for the public to wonder when or if the commercialization and implementation is going to happen. Lab-grown burgers have been "real" for years, but they still aren't on our dinner plates, and it's unclear whether they ever will be. That's partly because the science is still expensive and the meat is generally considered to be tasteless, but it's also because it's not obvious that there's a demand among vegetarians to eat "meat," or a desire among meat eaters to eat meat synthesized in a laboratory. We know this, in part, because journalists and artists brought these ideas to the public.

"Just because it's not in the supply chain or you can't buy it doesn't mean it's not real," Oliver Kellhammer, an ecological artist who is working on planting prehistoric trees in British Columbia, told me. "There are complicated reasons why things get made and why they don't get made that don't have to do with technical feasibility. If McDonalds can make money off of it, we'll have it. But right now we have cruelty-free meat. It's called nuts."

Daisy Ginsberg at Biofabricate. Image: Evan Rodgers for Motherboard

Whether it's "real" or not is beside the point for artists like Kellhammer.

"We're not cheerleaders for science, we just notice science and make work about it. Sometimes it's scary work that's a warning or a reflection on a possibility that may not be comfortable. Other times it may be utopian," he said. "If some of it becomes real because of processes of science and of capitalism—which we have nothing to do with—some of us care about that, others of us not as much."

Will lab-grown meat ever become commercially viable? Will any of the myriad art projects and design concepts and basic research ever become commonplace in our society? None of us know—that's why we speculate. Rather than getting upset about these speculations, scientists, artists, journalists, and the public should embrace the debate and attention the others' work brings to the conversation.

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