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Synthetic aesthetics: connecting synthetic biology and creative design

Jane Calvert

Affiliated staff:   Alistair Elfick   Drew Endy

Funding: EPSRC (UK) and NSF (USA)

Started: October 1 2009


This project will bring together scientists and engineers working in synthetic biology with artists and designers working in the creative industries, and it will analyse the interactions that result. This could lead to new forms of engineering, new schools of art, and new approaches to societal engagement with synthetic biology.

Synthetic biology can be defined as the design and construction of new biological parts, devices, and systems, and the re-design of existing biological systems for useful purposes. As this definition demonstrates, design is central to synthetic biology, as it is to all manufactured entities. However, we are much more familiar with thinking about design in the context of large scale construction projects such as bridges and buildings than we are in the context of biology.

Synthetic biology has the potential to profoundly change our natural environment, so it is important that work in the discipline is informed, from the start, with aesthetic considerations. Industry has not always done this well in the past, and this has resulted in landscapes scarred by coal mines and fields of monotonous monocultures. In synthetic biology, biology becomes a product of design choices, and industrial and political imperatives, rather than evolutionary pressures alone.

Our aim in this project is to bring artists, architects, industrial and graphic designers and those who are expert at studying, analysing and designing the synthetic/natural interface together with the existing synthetic biology community to help with the work of designing, understanding and building the living world.

Long-lasting interactions between the two communities will enable aesthetic concerns to be reflected in synthetic biology projects and products, enabling inclusive and responsive technology development. It will also facilitate novel forms of engagement and interaction within the synthetic biology research community.

Aims and objectives

The project is divided into three stand-alone phases:

  • In the first stage we will develop case studies summarising work in synthetic biology to distribute to the creative professionals. We will also identify groups and individuals who would benefit from being part of the project.
  • In stage two, we will arrange twelve exchanges where members of both communities spend time in each others' institutions.
  • In the third stage, we will organise two launch workshops: one at a synthetic biology conference and one at a design conference. We will also develop web resources and other dissemination mechanisms.

We hope to see a surge of growth and interest in the aesthetics of synthetic biology in the final phase, resulting in long-term relationships between synthetic biologists and creative design professionals, which will influence teaching, research and product development. This could lead to new forms of engineering, new schools of art, and new approaches to societal engagement with synthetic biology.

Wider implications for policy

This project will provide an alternative mechanism for non-scientists to engage with synthetic biology, beyond the familiar ‘outreach’ channels. The members of the creative and design communities who are part of this project will not just be passive recipients of information; the whole process will be much more reciprocal, and we expect the scientific approaches to be informed as a result. Furthermore, art and design make abstract concepts tangible and discussable, and they provide a mechanism to debate different futures before they happen. Art and design can encourage thought and debate in a way that transcends traditional forms of public engagement.

Further information

Synthetic Aesthetics website