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← What happens when biology becomes technology?

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Showing Revision 6 created 07/22/2020 by Erin Gregory.

  1. A briefcase full of poop changed my life.
  2. Ten years ago, I was a graduate student
  3. and I was helping judge
    a genetic engineering competition
  4. for undergrads.
  5. There, I met a British artist and designer
    named Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg.
  6. She was wearing the white
    embroidered polo shirt
  7. of the University of Cambridge team
  8. and holding a silver briefcase,
  9. like the kind that you would imagine
    is handcuffed to your wrist.
  10. She gestured over from a quiet corner
  11. and asked me if I wanted to see something.
  12. With a sneaky look,
    she opened up the suitcase,
  13. and inside were six glorious,
    multicolored turds.
  14. The Cambridge team, she explained,

  15. had spent their summer
    engineering the bacteria E. coli
  16. to be able to sense different things
    in the environment
  17. and produce a rainbow
    of different colors in response.
  18. Arsenic in your drinking water?
  19. This strain would turn green.
  20. She and her collaborator,
    the designer James King,
  21. worked with the students and imagined
    the different possible scenarios
  22. of how you might use these bacteria.
  23. What if, they asked, you could use them
  24. as a living probiotic drink
    and health monitor, all in one?
  25. You could drink the bacteria
    and it would live in your gut,
  26. sensing what's going on,
  27. and then in response to something,
  28. it would be able to produce
    a colored output.
  29. Holy shit!
  30. The Cambridge team went on to win

  31. the International Genetically Engineered
    Machine competition,
  32. or iGEM for short.
  33. And as for me, those turds
    were a turning point.
  34. I am a synthetic biologist,

  35. which is probably a weird term
    that most people aren't familiar with.
  36. It definitely sounds like an oxymoron.
  37. How can biology, something natural,
  38. be synthetic?
  39. How can something artificial be alive?
  40. Synthetic biologists sort of poke holes
  41. in that boundary that we draw between
    what is natural and what's technological.
  42. And every year, iGEM students
    from all over the world
  43. spend their summer
  44. trying to engineer biology
    to be technology.
  45. They teach bacteria how to play sudoku,
  46. they make multicolored spider silk,
  47. they make self-healing concrete
  48. and tissue printers
    and plastic-eating bacteria.
  49. Up until that moment, though,

  50. I was a little bit more concerned
    with a different kind of oxymoron.
  51. Just plain old genetic engineering.
  52. The comedian Simon Munnery once wrote
  53. that genetic engineering is actually
    insulting to proper engineering.
  54. Genetic engineering is more like throwing
    a bunch of concrete and steel in a river
  55. and if somebody can walk across,
    you call it a bridge.
  56. And so synthetic biologists
    were pretty worried about this,
  57. and worried that genetic engineering
    was a little bit more art that science.
  58. They wanted to turn genetic engineering
    into a real engineering discipline,
  59. where we could program cells and write DNA
  60. the way that engineers write
    software for computers.
  61. That day 10 years ago started me on a path
    that gets me to where I am now.

  62. Today, I'm the creative director
  63. at a synthetic biology company
    called Ginkgo Bioworks.
  64. "Creative director" is a weird title
  65. for a biotech company
    were people try to program life
  66. the way that we program computers.
  67. But that day when I met Daisy,
  68. I learned something about engineering.
  69. I learned that engineering
    isn't really just about equations
  70. and steel and circuits,
  71. it's actually about people.
  72. It's something that people do,
    and it impacts us.
  73. So in my work,

  74. I try to open up new spaces
    for different kinds of engineering.
  75. How can we ask better questions,
  76. and can we have better conversations
  77. about what we want
    from the future of technology?
  78. How can we understand the technological
  79. but also social and political
    and economic reasons
  80. that GMOs are so polarizing
    in our society?
  81. Can we make GMOs that people love?
  82. Can we use biology to make technology
    that's more expansive and regenerative?
  83. I think it starts by recognizing
    that we, as synthetic biologists,

  84. are also shaped by a culture
    that values "real engineering"
  85. more than any of the squishy stuff.
  86. We get so caught up in circuits
    and what happens inside of computers,
  87. that we sometimes lose sight of the magic
    that's happening inside of us.
  88. There is plenty of shitty
    technology out there,
  89. but this was the first time
    that I imagined poop as technology.
  90. I began to see that synthetic
    biology was awesome,
  91. not because we could turn
    cells into computers,
  92. but because we could bring
    technology to life.
  93. This was technology that was visceral,
  94. an unforgettable vision
    of what the future might hold.
  95. But importantly, it was also
    framed as the question
  96. "Is this the kind of future
    that we actually want?"
  97. We've been promised a future of chrome,
  98. but what if the future is fleshy?
  99. Science and science fiction

  100. help us remember
    that we're made of star stuff.
  101. But can it also help us remember
    the wonder and weirdness
  102. of being made of flesh?
  103. Biology is us,
  104. it's our bodies, it's what we eat.
  105. What happens when biology
    becomes technology?
  106. These images are questions,
  107. and they challenge what we think of
    as normal and desirable.
  108. And they also show us
    that the future is full of choices
  109. and that we could choose differently.
  110. What's the future of the body, of beauty?
  111. If we change the body,
    will we have new kinds of awareness?
  112. And will new kinds of awareness
    of the microbial world
  113. change the way that we eat?
  114. The last chapter of my dissertation
    was all about cheese that I made

  115. using bacteria that I swabbed
    from in between my toes.
  116. I told you that the poop changed my life.
  117. I worked with the smell artist
    and researcher Sissel Tolaas
  118. to explore all of the ways
    that our bodies and cheese are connected
  119. through smell and therefore microbes.
  120. And we created this cheese
  121. to challenge how we think
    about the bacteria
  122. that's part of our lives
  123. and the bacteria
    that we work with in the lab.
  124. We are, indeed, what we eat.
  125. The intersection of biology and technology

  126. is more often told as a story
    of transcending our fleshy realities.
  127. If you can upload
    your brain to a computer,
  128. you don't need to poop anymore after all.
  129. And that's usually a story
    that's told as a good thing, right?
  130. Because computers are clean,
    and biology is messy.
  131. Computers make sense and are rational,
  132. and biology is an unpredictable tangle.
  133. It kind of follows from there
  134. that science and technology
    are supposed to be rational,
  135. objective
  136. and pure,
  137. and it's humans that are a total mess.
  138. But like synthetic biologists poke holes

  139. in that line between nature
    and technology,
  140. artists, designers and social scientists
  141. showed me that the lines that we draw
    between nature, technology and society
  142. are a little bit softer
    than we might think.
  143. They challenge us to reconsider
    our visions for the future
  144. and our fantasies
    about controlling nature.
  145. They show us how our prejudices,
    our hopes and our values
  146. are embedded in science and technology
  147. through the questions that we ask
    and the choices that we make.
  148. They make visible the ways
    that science and technology are human
  149. and therefore political.
  150. What does it mean for us
    to be able to control life
  151. for our own purposes?
  152. The artists Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr

  153. made a project
    called "Victimless Leather,"
  154. where they engineered
    a tiny leather jacket
  155. out of mouse cells.
  156. Is this jacket alive?
  157. What does it take to grow it
    and keep it this way?
  158. Is it really victimless?
  159. And what does it mean
    for something to be victimless?
  160. The choices that we make

  161. in what we show and what we hide
    in our stories of progress,
  162. are often political choices
    that have real consequences.
  163. How will genetic technologies
    shape the way that we understand ourselves
  164. and define our bodies?
  165. The artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg
    made these faces

  166. based on DNA sequences
    she extracted from sidewalk litter,
  167. forcing us to ask questions
    about genetic privacy,
  168. but also how and whether
    DNA can really define us.
  169. How will we fight against
    and cope with climate change?
  170. Will we change the way
    that we make everything,
  171. using biological materials
    that can grow and decay alongside us?
  172. Will we change our own bodies?
  173. Or nature itself?
  174. Or can we change the system
    that keeps reinforcing those boundaries
  175. between science, society,
    nature and technology?
  176. Relationships that today keep us
    locked in these unsustainable patterns.
  177. How we understand and respond to crises

  178. that are natural, technical
    and social all at once,
  179. from coronavirus to climate change,
  180. is deeply political,
  181. and science never happens in a vacuum.
  182. Let's go back in time

  183. to when the first European settlers
    arrived in Hawaii.
  184. They eventually brought their cattle
    and their scientists with them.
  185. The cattle roamed the hillsides,
  186. trampling and changing
    the ecosystems as they went.
  187. The scientists catalogued the species
    that they found there,
  188. often taking the last specimen
    before they went extinct.
  189. This is the Maui hau kuahiwi,
  190. or the Hibiscadelphus wilderianus,
  191. so named by Gerrit Wilder in 1910.
  192. By 1912, it was extinct.
  193. I found this specimen
    in the Harvard University Herbarium,

  194. where it's housed with five million
    other specimens from all over the world.
  195. I wanted to take a piece
    of science's past,
  196. tied up as it was with colonialism,
  197. and all of the embedded ideas
  198. of the way that nature and science
    and society should work together,
  199. and ask questions about science's future.
  200. Working with an awesome team at Ginkgo,

  201. and others at UC Santa Cruz,
  202. we were able to extract
    a little bit of the DNA
  203. from a tiny sliver of this plant specimen
  204. and to sequence the DNA inside.
  205. And then resynthesize a possible version
  206. of the genes that made
    the smell of the plant.
  207. By inserting those genes into yeast,
  208. we could produce little bits of that smell
  209. and be able to, maybe, smell
  210. a little bit of something
    that's lost forever.
  211. Working again with Daisy
    and Sissel Tolaas,
  212. my collaborator on the cheese project,
  213. we reconstructed and composed
    a new smell of that flower,
  214. and created an installation
    where people could experience it,
  215. to be part of this natural history
    and synthetic future.
  216. Ten years ago, I was a synthetic biologist

  217. worried that genetic engineering
    was more art than science
  218. and that people were too messy
  219. and biology was too complicated.
  220. Now I use genetic engineering as art
  221. to explore all the different ways
    that we are entangled together
  222. and imagine different possible futures.
  223. A fleshy future
  224. is one that does recognize
    all those interconnections
  225. and the human realities of technology.
  226. But it also recognizes
    the incredible power of biology,
  227. its resilience and sustainability,
  228. its ability to heal and grow and adapt.
  229. Values that are so necessary
  230. for the visions of the futures
    that we can have today.
  231. Technology will shape that future,
  232. but humans make technology.
  233. How we decide what that future will be
  234. is up to all of us.
  235. Thank you.