Synthetic Biology as Collective Fantasy
by Christina Agapakis

In 2011, Andy Ellington, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Texas wrote a typically scathing blog post on safety regulations and the growth of synthetic biology. Conversations about the need for new regulations, he argued, “continue to support a view of synthetic biology as a real-world discipline, as opposed to a collective fantasy.” With hundreds of articles and blog posts breathlessly proclaiming the future potential of synthetic biology — both its promise and peril — Ellington’s post provides a refreshingly new question to consider. Rather than asking if synthetic biology will save the world or destroy it, perhaps it’s more useful to start with a much simpler question: does synthetic biology actually exist?

At one level the answer is easy — of course it exists, I got my PhD in synthetic biology after all! We have our own academic journals, international conferences, university departments, undergraduate majors, and expensive textbooks. Thousands of people call themselves synthetic biologists, using the term to describe very real work with very real applications. Synthetic biologists are students competing in the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition, biotech industry professionals starting new companies, and academics redesigning the logic of living things.

But at the same time, synthetic biology is a collective fantasy — a discipline defined much better by shared dreams for the future rather than any present technique or application. Synthetic biology is oriented around the potential of what a future genetic designer might be able to do with cheap DNA synthesis and well-characterized genetic parts. In this future, synthetic biology has transformed genetic engineering into a “true engineering discipline,” where living things that never existed before can be designed computationally, assembled robotically, and then function as predicted, according to a rational and completely controllable logic.

The real-world work of synthetic biologists goes towards building the tools that might make this fantasy possible. But synthetic biologists also work to build the fantasy itself, to creatively imagine future scenarios, and to create prototypes that help others see its potential. Building tools for future genetic engineers means imagining the world that those engineers will live in, speculating on the kind of projects that they will create, and designing proofs-of-principle that can help us to better imagine that potential. Perhaps then it’s useful to think of synthetic biology as a specialized form of design fiction; projects start with a simple “what if…?” and through the design of experiments and genetic pathways offer a glimpse of a future where such technologies might exist at scale.

Saying that synthetic biology is design fiction is not the same as saying that synthetic biology is fake or somehow fraudulent. Rather, it is saying that the work of synthetic biology extends far beyond the limited technical details of a particular genetic circuit design. Constructing design fictions involves real design of objects and prototypes, as well as narratives that work to inspire new researchers, funders, and supporters. My own early work in synthetic biology began with the question: what if we could make cheap hydrogen fuel in bacteria? Such a question involves the biology of hydrogenases and electron metabolism in bacteria, but it also involves imagining a very different energy economy and transportation infrastructure from what we have today. My gene circuits and metabolic pathways were real, as were the small quantities of hydrogen my bacteria produced, but they were also part of a story I wanted to tell about the future of energy.

Like the design fictions of critical and speculative designers, these narratives can inspire us to imagine a different world where the ways that we design, build, and use technologies are different from how they are today. But unlike the work of critical and speculative designers, most synthetic biologists tell such stories to generate, sustain, and promote the field. Whereas critical designers might create ambiguous and ambivalent future scenarios that challenge us to ask questions, many engineers use narratives and speculations to garner public support, gain funding, and help further realize the vision of synthetic biology.

Synthetic biologists don’t focus only on utopian visions of the field, they also frequently tell more negative stories about the dangerous potential of synthetic biology. These stories of bioterror, “bioerror,” and questions of social implications are important for thoughtful and safe development of new technologies, but they also often assume a technological sophistication that does not yet exist. Speculations about the dangers of synthetic biology are also echoed and amplified by opponents of synthetic biology, who use such stories when calling for strict regulation of new research or outright moratoria on synthetic biology products. In these highly polarized debates between wholesale supporters and those who seek an end to synthetic biology, the stories and language used by both sides can be strikingly similar, focusing on what might be possible while causing significant confusion about what is actually happening in today’s “real world discipline” of synthetic biology.

Both sides of the current debate about synthetic biology take for granted the present challenges and realities of engineering biology. Utopian and dystopian visions have become the dominant talking points, even though they are both extrapolated from the incorrect assumption that synthetic biology has already made biology trivially easy to engineer. In an article in New Scientist, sociologists Claire Marris and Nikolas Rose warn about the rise of such “speculative ethics,” and call for us to “Get Real on Synthetic Biology.” Focusing on far-future speculations, they argue, distracts us from honest debate about what synthetic biologists actually do, what might be possible in the near term, and how these actually emerging technologies might contribute to the public good with proper oversight.

Several recent examples illustrate how a focus on the “collective fantasy” of synthetic biology and a narrow definition of what synthetic biologists actually do can hamper open public debate about biotechnology. Last winter, George Church, a professor at Harvard and a leader in the field, made headlines with wild speculations taken out of context. He wrote in his book Regenesis about advances in genome editing that may make it possible to clone extinct species, including human ancestors. Misinterpreted quotes from the book made it seem like Church was well on his way to cloning a Neanderthal, and that all he needed now was an “extremely adventurous human female” to gestate the clone. After a public outcry, dozens of news articles, and several phone calls from adventurous women willing to volunteer, Church spoke out to squash the rumors. In an interview with the Boston Herald, Church said that he wasn’t actually working on cloning Neanderthals. Instead, he was simply speculating on possible far future applications of genome editing technology to spark a debate about synthetic biology’s potential. “I’m certainly not advocating it,” he clarified, “I’m saying, if it is technically possible someday, we need to start talking about it today.” Like many critical designers, Church was hoping to spark a debate on the desirability of this potential application of synthetic biology. The collective fantasy, however, blurs fact and speculation and makes it incredibly challenging to design for real debate.

Part of the challenge also comes from confusion about defining the term “synthetic biology” itself. Last year’s successful “Glowing Plant” Kickstarter project raised nearly half a million dollars by promising backers a novel synthetic biology product: engineered bioluminescent plants. As part of the campaign, the project crafted a synthetic biology design fiction (similar to others produced in the past by iGEM students and speculative architects) of streets lined with sustainable glowing trees rather than energy-intensive lighting. Such images create a story about what synthetic biology is and what it might be able to do in the future. A profile in the New York Times described the project as using “sophisticated form of genetic engineering called synthetic biology,” and the project was supported by companies selling synthetic biology software and DNA synthesis. However, the team quickly backpedalled on the use of the term after the GMO-opposition group ETC began calling for the cancellation of their crowdfunding campaign with a “kickstopper” petition. In their response to ETC Group, the Glowing Plant team claimed that: “We are using the term ‘synthetic biology’ in its most general sense, the technology we are using is functionally the same as that which has been used in the creation of many other biotechnology products over the last two decades.”

This slippage in defining what counts as synthetic biology in the first place can lead to murky debates and confusion in the public discourse surrounding bioengineering projects. The Glowing Plant project was “synthetic biology” (not just genetic engineering) when it was convenient to project visions of high-tech newness to techno-utopian backers, but was not synthetic biology (only genetic engineering) when it was challenged by techno-dystopian opponents and potential regulatory oversight. This shape-shifting made it very difficult to actually debate the project’s goals and rhetoric, or the proposed release of genetically modified plant seeds to their Kickstarter backers, which remains scheduled for sometime later this year.

It’s easy to dismiss the Glowing Plant project as simply a PR exercise rather than a relevant example of the challenges facing the public debate of new biotechnology. It’s also easy, like Church did in the Herald interview, to blame the lack of nuance in such debates on clickbaity online media and sensationalist headlines, or to claim that it’s poor science literacy that leads to confusion and misunderstanding in these debates. But these examples, and others where design fictions by artists and designers have been misleadingly reported as scientific facts, show how scientists and engineers, their boosters, as well as their critics all play a role in shaping the debate and the collective fantasy of synthetic biology.

Without clear and honest terminology, how are we to debate the future of technology? How might we design for a more nuanced debate? How can we “get real” on synthetic biology while still dreaming of a different future? The answer is of course not to stop speculating entirely, but to first step back and ask new questions, to understand the limits of speculation, and to discuss what the speculations themselves tell us about the present realities of synthetic biology as it exists today.

The science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin wrote that science fiction is not a prediction, but a thought experiment. “The purpose of a thought-experiment,” she wrote in the introduction to her novel The Left Hand of Darkness, “as the term was used by Schrödinger and other physicists, is not to predict the future—indeed Schrödinger’s most famous thought-experiment goes to show that the ‘future,’ on the quantum level, cannot be predicted—but to describe reality, the present world.” Like Schödinger’s most famous thought experiment, the debates surrounding synthetic biology create a strange paradox where synthetic biology is both real and unreal at the same time. Debates about synthetic biology get caught in the quantum gap between the existing realities of the work that synthetic biologists do and the speculations on synthetic biology’s future potential. To critically debate the future of synthetic biology then, we shouldn’t begin our thought experiments by simply asking “what if synthetic biology exists?” Rather, let’s ask: what do the future dreams of synthetic biology tell us about the present? What does the collective fantasy tell us about biology, technology, their intersection, and our role within them? Who is benefiting from these stories and what kind of future will they create? What if synthetic biology were different?

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Christina Agapakis is a biological designer who blogs about biology, engineering, engineering biology, and biologically inspired engineering. Follow on Twitter @thisischristina.