Our team started by choosing to focus on the topic of communication, specifically how biological technologies challenge the borders that our society creates. Borders are drawn between concepts, spaces, places and bodies across all conceivable scales, and although within a human time frame they may appear to be immutable – it is important to remember they are a cultural phenomena.
The world created by human beings as we know it now, has brought large and complex problems. The problems are interwoven within society and often connected to a variety of ecosystems. Emerging technologies within systems and synthetic biology could potentially provide solutions to problems on the ecosystem scale. Gene drives could be used to prevent mosquitos from transmitting the malaria virus across third world countries (ref), or novel organisms could be used to remediate sites polluted by human activities (pg. 2, König et al).
However, how do we test the fitness of a synthetic organism to create positive change in the endlessly complicated world outside of a lab? Solving one problem could cause conflict in another ecosystem, creating a butterfly effect. In addition to this, how do we legislate for these types of technologies? Laws tend to be confined within national or international borders, however synthetic organisms will make no distinction between habitats where they are legal and those where they are prohibited.
The discomfort surrounding the release of synthetic organisms is partly rooted in the dichotomy between humans and nature. A ‘natural’ environment is perceived to be one free of human intervention, but all living organisms influence the environments they inhabit by one means or another. The Extended Phenotype is concept developed by Richard Dawkins to explain how an organism’s genetic sequence can affect the world beyond its body through behavioural actions such as architectural construction or parasitism. As well as intentional interventions in our environment, mankind has been unintentionally changing the chemical make-up of the planet through polluting activities such as the poor disposal of plastics, oil spills and the burning of fossil fuels. Framing the debate about how humans should intervene in their habitat around the idea of preserving nature is unproductive because it inherently perpetuates the narrative that mankind is separate from it. Instead, we should acknowledge that the immense capabilities of humans to modify their environment is in fact a natural phenomenon, and attempt to understand the responsibility we have as residents on the Earth in shaping our its environmental future.
Another problematic factor in public perception of synthetic biology is the framing of genetic modification as both a new technology, and an unnatural process. In fact, we have been altering the genetics of other organisms throughout history through selective breeding. The discomfort with genetic engineering appears to stem not from the action of modifying life forms, but the speed at which it happens. For example, if a biologist were to genetically engineer a chihuahua from DNA extracted from a wolf in a single step, you could imagine how controversial it could be. However, humans have accepted the chihuahua as it was evolved from the wolf in a timeframe that is arbitrarily deemed reasonable.
On the surface the of combining chunks of genetic code of different organisms might seem unnatural, however the process is relatively common in nature. In 2016, biologists from Vanderbilt University in America sequenced the DNA of a virus that attacks Wolbachia – a bacterial parasite that targets arthropods (insects, spiders and crustaceans) – only to discover that it utilises a section of DNA related to the black widow spider to produce a toxin which punches through it’s hosts cell wall (Salisbury). Genetic sequencing suggests that even humans utilise the DNA of other organisms within our cells. The mitochondria that power our bodies contain their own DNA which is circular, like that of bacteria, suggesting an extracellular origin. Although experimental evidence of the bacterial ancestors for human mitochondria can’t be provided, some species of present day protozoa have been observed to contain living organisms within their cytoplasm (Caprette). The ubiquity of DNA sequences traversing horizontally between organisms suggests that the rigid taxonomical boundaries drawn by humans are far more fluid and fuzzy than once thought. Genetic sequencing technology is highlighting that that classifications we use to describe living organisms, although extremely useful in certain circumstance, are ultimately cultural. Although they should be understood, they are not immutable and eternal.
If we do pursue biological technologies in our efforts to protect, reclaim and shape our environment, it is vital we understand their behaviours within the complicated, noisy surroundings that conventionally evolved organisms inhabit. The controlled conditions of a laboratory are perfect for experimenting with the synthesis of novel organisms where “biologists [can] draw on the engineering principles of standardisation, decoupling and abstraction’ (Pg. 391, Calvert), however it is not the appropriate place to explore the emergent properties inherent to biological systems. For example, a synthetic organism isn’t going to constrain its territory to the political borders of a country where it is legal to release them – creating the potential for future international tensions if synthetic organisms are ever released into the environment.
“The tendency to extrapolate the fitness of laboratory-developed microorganisms (obtained either through genetic engineering, selection processes or a combination of both) to the one they will have in the wild [is often overlooked]… Biological systems have evolved under complex ecological pressures. Synthetic organisms are designed in a simpler, controlled environment, which makes behaviour extrapolations very risky.” (Porcar and Peretó).
In response to these factors, our group propose the formation of Syncadia, an institution that functions as halfway house between the lab and the wilds.
Syncadia is an ecological playground, a space created for users from diverse backgrounds to engage in bio technological processes and for the synthetic organisms created to roam free.
Creating such a place is based on us as a generation carrying the responsibility to be careful of the actions we take that can possibly change the world as we know it. It is our responsibility to beware making the same mistakes our ancestors have been doing.
The first pilot of Syncadia will be built on the 16 hectare plot of land in Western Scotland. Previously this spot was used as an oil refinery, however during the Second World War the refinery was the target of the blitzkrieg, resulting in a fire that blazed for two weeks leaving the landscape chemically contaminated with lead.
The particular location was chosen to the host the site because of how heavily humans have already impacted its ecosystem. In addition Scotland is one of the leading countries within the research of biotechnologies, offering great scope for further impacting such an ecosystem in a positive way.
Salisbury, D (2016) Virus carrying DNA of black widow spider toxin discovered. Research News at Vanderbilt.
Caprette, D (2005) Evolutionary Origin of Mitochondria. Experimental Bioscience, Rice University
Calvert, J (2008) The Commodification of Emergence: Systems Biology, Synthetic Biology and Intellectual Property. BioSocieties, Pg. 383-398, Vol. 3. [Online]
Porcar, M and J. Peretó, J (2015) Nature versus design: synthetic biology or how to build a biological non-machine.
Kahn, J (2016) Gene editing can now change an entire species. [Ted Talk]
König H, Frank D, Heil R, Coenen C. Synthetic genomics and synthetic biology applications between hopes and concerns. Curr Genomics. 2013;14(1):11–24. [PMC free article] [PubMed]