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Art, Design, and Synthetic Biology

By Aakriti Jain

PLOS Synthetic Biology Community Editor

As this year marked the 10th anniversary for iGEM Giant Jamboree, the competition brought over 2300 participants from 245 teams from all over the world and included a multitude of special events in addition to the regular team presentations. Furthermore, there was the addition of seven new tracks, along with the original tracks that were present in previous jamborees. One of these new tracks was “Art and Design.”

The addition of the Art and Design track to the iGEM competition filled a void that wasn’t addressed in previous jamborees: iGEM projects often include interesting design questions for engineers that may be outside of the “hard science” aspects of the project. As iGEM projects hope to push the limits of science and synthetic biology farther into the future, many iGEM projects can become, in fact, an imagination for the future of biology with applications ranging from medicine to the environment. There have been many teams, such as the Cambridge 2009 iGEM team that worked on the E. chromi project, that have worked in coalition with designers to envision a time where standardized and synthetic biology can be used in everyday life. They have used iGEM projects to create speculative or critical design projects. These projects have definite art and design aspects that often went unnoticed in the context of a scientific competition such as iGEM; this new track offered a chance for teams to explore and exhibit these often creative and perhaps futuristic aspects of their work. According to Art and Design track coordinator Christina Agapakis, “Like with any competition, there are challenges that come with trying to formalize these relationships into rubrics and judging scores, but the students who participated…all learn something incredibly valuable through these collaborations.”

Along with the addition of the new track, the competition also offered a wide range of science and design special events and exhibitions that highlighted the increasing prevalence of design in the synthetic biology community. These exhibitions included the “Art & Design exhibition,” an open space for iGEM teams to showcase the artistic aspects their projects; the “Imagine, Design, and Create with Project Cyborg,” a session explaining the Project Cyborg platform, which allows for the exploration of emerging design spaces, from synthetic biology to DNA origami and multi-dimensional bio-printing; and most notably, the “Cultured Products” showcase. This showcase was hosted by Ginkgo Bioworks, other start ups, artists, and scientists. It featured presentations on a wildly new perspective on everyday cultured products that we are all accustomed to, such as beer, cheese, perfumes and fashion. It showed the first steps that synthetic biology is taking in integrating disciplines to create sustainable products and increase our depth of understanding of traditional products. There was a presentation by scientists from Tufts University and elsewhere looking at cheese rinds to understand microbial communities, which also unearthed unexpected results like finding ocean bacteria in cheese rinds. Other presentations were given by artists at ventures like Biocouture, which works on biofabricating the future of fashion, and even iGEM alumni who are designing yeasts that can create the smell of roses and more to be used in perfumes. The entire showcase gave a preview of the unexpected and not-so-futuristic-any-longer directions that synthetic biology could go in order to shape our daily lives. It also gave a clear reason for the importance of design principles in creating new, innovative, and usable products from synthetic biology roots.

Biocouture presenting on the future of fashion and synthetic biology at the Cultured Products workshop at iGEM Giant Jamboree 2014.
Biocouture presenting on the future of fashion and synthetic biology at the Cultured Products workshop at iGEM Giant Jamboree 2014.

The projects this year included one looking at new generation bioart by the KIT Kyoto team, which looked at a variety of out of the box ways to harmonize biology with art using Drosophila trails, GFP-expressing E. coli fed to C. elegans, and more. Another project, by the Paris Saclay team, used synthetic biology to simulate the life cycle of simple objects such as lemons. The winning team, ArtCenter MDP, delved into how “simulations at micro and macro scales” can use synthetic biology to understand issues beyond the lab, such as “individual, neighborhood, city and overall energy infrastructures.” All of these projects, along with many others, exposed the wide range of directions that biology paired with art and design can go.

Not only did teams have the opportunity to submit projects directly to the Art and Design track, but they could also integrate design into their preexisting project the way the Paris Bettencourt iGEM team (of which I was a member), the Art and Design cross-track winners, did with an exhibition that imagined a future around microbiome engineering.

During the jamboree, a workshop was held to discuss the addition of this new track and to narrow down strategies for future iGEM jamborees. It was determined that design will continue to be a part of iGEM by:

(a) using synthetic biology along with prototype design for any prototypes or concepts that teams may envision and want to develop;

(b) using design to communicate a team’s ideas, whether it be through innovative wikis, posters, presentations, workshops, events, etc.,;

(c)  using design in concert with synthetic biology in order to critique any present problems or potential futures; this could even be a critique on synthetic biology itself and could even go hand-in-hand with human practices; and finally,

(d) using design to lead the synthetic biology research itself. Design-led research is common in many applied sciences and may play in important role in synthetic biology research as well.

In conclusion, the track paved great promise for future iGEM competitions in integrating Art and Design in projects, and allows for an exciting future in applications for synthetic biology.

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