The third episode of the DIYSECT web-series highlights discussions surrounding the emerging field of transgenics, and the artist and scientists who are provoking them. Synthetic Biology is making its way into the consumer market, evidenced by the Kickstarter-funded Glowing Plants project. This has created a backlash with technology watchdog groups like the ETC, who fear its release will have damaging effects on the environment. The episode also features artist Adam Zaretsky who uses performance to push the boundaries on what is commonly perceived as frightening and disgusting to the public in biotechnological advancements. His work takes advantage of its controversial nature to propel a wider discussion on what is ethical in the field of synthetic biology. The episode also looks at the public’s relationship with genetically modified organisms, and how corporate manipulation has created general mistrust in the public sphere.
Key words: innate fear and disgust, corporate mistrust and mystification, GMO controversy, bioethics, ethics of genetic manipulation, regulatory environment, corporate profit motive, patents and ownership, media and pop culture exaggerations, yuck factor, public uneasiness
Fear of the Unknown features:
- Rob Carlson (Author of "Biology is Technology")
- Omri Drory-Amirov (Founder of Genome Compiler)
- Antony Evans (Glowing Plants)
- Andrew Hessel (Distinguished Researcher at Autodesk)
- Derek Jacoby (Founder of Victoria's Biospace)
- Richard Pell (Director of the Center for PostNatural History)
- Claire Pentecost (artist & writer)
- Michael Scroggins (writer & anthropologist)
- Kyle Taylor (Glowing Plants)
- Adam Zaretsky (artist, VivoArts School for Transgenic Aesthetics, Ltd.)
A symbol for synthetic biology
The startup which raised half a million dollars on Kickstarter had its humble beginnings as a community project at Biocurious. Kyle Taylor, a molecular biologist from Stanford University, joined the bioluminescence community project, which met up every week at Biocurious to experiment with genes that make living things glow. Kyle had always dreamed of making the African Violet, one of his favorite flowers, glow, but decided to experiment with a more well-studied plant first. The Arabidopsis thaliana, a small flowering plant, is one of the most commonly used plant species in laboratories and was a natural place to begin. Genome Compiler software CEO Omri Drory-Evans had very similar ambitions to make glowing plants to help promote his innovative software. He met Antony Evans at Singularity University, and the two began discussing the potentials of a Kickstarter campaign to spark public interest. On April 23, 2013, the Glowing Plants Kickstarter was launched as the first campaign to ever fund a synthetic biology application.
The project gained popularity quickly among the synthetic biology community, and by the end of funding had raised over $400,000. At the same time, it also caused a great deal of controversy surrounding the regulation of consumer-related synthetic biology. A main point of contention was one of the Kickstarter prizes: genetically modified seeds. Groups like the ETC feared negative environmental effects from the mass distribution of the product. In addition, the Glowing Plants team were forced to move their research out of Biocurious because its cofounders were uncomfortable with the release and monetization of the seed. The public release of the seed was so controversial that Kickstarter rewrote its laws, banning the distribution of genetically modified organisms as prizes.
When we interviewed with Antony and Kyle in September of 2013, they had not yet received confirmation from the USDA under their process “Am I Regulated.” In their December 2014 response letter, APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) declared that “the plant itself is not a plant pest nor is it currently listed as a Federal Noxious Weed...and the method used to genetically engineer the plant did not involve plant pests.” This seems to be a green light for the transgenic bioluminescent Arabidopsis. Now, Glowing Plants works primarily out the Container Lab, a freight container-turned laboratory in San Francisco dedicated to Synthetic Biology related startups. They continue to post status updates on their website, with the mission to stay as transparent as possible. They hope to release the seeds by spring 2015.
A race to consumer-GMOs
Genome Compiler, the brainchild of Omri Drory-Amirov is software designed to interact with synthetic biology, or as Omri calls it “the word processor of synbio.” Omri made a direct correlation between binary code used in computers (0 and 1s), and the nucleotides (ACTG) found in biology, and realized that there was no “programming language” for genetic engineering. The goal of Genome Compiler was to provide a user interface for designing your own organism. Purchasing the newly designed genetic sequence would be as easy as dropping an app in your payment cart. Many, however are skeptical about its practical applications and the very problematic and overused analogy of comparing biological systems to computers.
Bioglow, one of Glowing Plants primary competitors, has similar ambitions of finding sustainable, alternative energy source to the future of lighting. Their prototype, the Biobulb, is a smaller plant contained within a light bulb that generates phosphorescence lighting. Central research is done at Bio Research Development and Growth Industrial Park, located in St Louis, across the street from Monsanto. Both Glowing Plant and Bioglow are backed by competing synthetic biology companies, each eager to open up new markets in consumer-based GMOs.
We often cite Richard Pell as the indirect father of this documentary project because he taught us both at Carnegie Mellon University: Ben in Documentary Filmmaking and Mary in Postnatural Studio. In addition to being professor of electronic media at Carnegie Mellon, Rich is also the director of the Center for PostNatural History, a truly one-of-a-kind museum. The CPNH is dedicated to the documentation and preservation of organisms that have been altered by human existence, from selective breeding to genetic engineering. Behind each modified organism is a complex and anthropocentric narrative where the postnatural product is inextricably tied to human existence. Take for instance corn; it is a starchy superplant compared to its predecessor, and now its patent ownership dictates how and where it is grown and who it is grown by. Other organisms on display at the CPNH are a biosteel goat (engineered to produce spider silk proteins in its milk) and a transgenic chestnut plant (engineered to resist chestnut blight).
Workhorse Zoo (2002)
In 2002, Adam Zaretsky performed his controversial peice Workhorse Zoo. In molecular biology, there is a group of organisms known as “the workhorses of biology.” E. Coli (bacteria), C. Elegans (worm), A. Thaliana (plant), Zebrafish (fish), Xenopus (frog), Murine (Mice), Drosophila M. (fly), Homo Sapiens (human) and Yeast (raw mead). Because scientists have an intimate understanding of how these organisms work biologically, they are the ones most often used in pharmaceutical and other research studies. Zaretsky became interested in challenging those relationships, and imagined what it would be like if a human were to interact with these creatures more intimately. He lived inside of a clean room with the animals, interacting with them in a variety of different roles (including scientist, farmer, fellow animal.) The piece sparked discussion among animal rights activists as to what is acceptable to experiment with in an artistic and scientific sphere.
FIST.SAVE.MOP.BAIT: Art and engineering TOWARDS A SOLAR POWERED SPECIES
Forced Interspecies Transgenic Solar Animal Vegetable Environmental Microinjection Organismic Personality Behavioral Audio Integrity Test, or FIST.SAVE.MOP.BAIT is both a scientific and artistic research project to enhance the use of solar energy by plants, algae, and other solar collectors. As part of the BioSolar Cells (BSC) consortium in the Netherlands and in collaboration with Dr. Huub de Groot, Adam Zaretsky attempts to infuse these technologies with social, ethical, and philosophical commentary. As seen in his previous 2002 performance piece Workhorse Zoo, Zaretsky’s work usually demonstrates an underlying empathy towards the various workhorses of molecular biology. While billions of dollars are poured into scientific research each year in search for the next sustainable cure, Zaretsky looks at the target organisms whose whole genomes will be “fractured and forced into interspecies symbiosis.” He questions the manipulation, objectification, and instrumentalization of these organisms, and the blatant paradox of selling these transgenic processes as sustainable solutions for the future of humankind.
Adam Zaretsky's Errorarium on display at Ja Natuurlijk exhibition in the Hague, Netherlands
Meet the organisms of FIST.SAVE.MOP.BAIT.
Synechococcus 7002 (PCC 7002). She is an algae used in biofuels research and engineered to be a sugar exporter/ leaker. In the installation, the PCC 7002 cyanobacterium is forced into endosymbiosis (living inside) by being microinjected into zebrafish embryos
Casper/PCC 7002 FESZ, a combination algae-fish. Casper is a a Danio Rerio (zebrafish) transparent mutant embryo. So, Casper/PCC 7002 FESZ is a forced endosymbiont solar zebrafish construct. By being microinjected life-into-life, the PCC 7002 algae lives directly in the body of casper embryos.
Bipolar Flower: Manic-depressive, Double Dipped, Zinc Fingered (ZF), GMO Arabidopsis thaliana plants. These are plants who have been modified in a bipolar duet of two artificial transcription factors (activating and repressing) competing for the same binding places on the Arabidopsis genome.
As the scientists of the BioSolar Cells program develop a new biofuel from organisms modified to more efficiently harness the energy of the sun, Zaretsky questions the ethical and environmental implications of creating an organism with hyper-photosynthetic potential. In FIST.SAVE.MOP.BAIT, the public is asked to meet and engage with three genetically modified organisms in an experimental growth chamber called The Errorarium. This chamber includes environmental variables such as lighting and sound that the participants can control, thereby affecting the life cycle of these organisms. Zaretsky writes in his paper, “the organisms themselves are both metaphors and actual experiment that tell a story about photonics, zinc fingers, symbiosis, energy, and modification.”