SYNTHESIS is a six-day
intensive exchange laboratory for artists, designers,
synthetic biologists, engineers and others, held for the first time in July 2011.


Synthesis is an intensive exchange laboratory for artists, designers, synthetic biologists, engineers, and others to collaboratively explore synthetic biology’s ideas and techniques and its social and cultural implications, within the laboratory settin

Synthetic Biology is an emerging area of research, which applies engineering principles to biology. The aim is to ‘make biology easier to engineer’. Promising new drugs and materials for medical applications, new routes to making biofuels and chemicals and enabling the building of novel genomes and cells, it could have profound implications for the way we perceive and use living things.


Artist Helen Bullard learning to load a gel. Photo: Melanie Jackson

The exchange laboratory content was designed by artist/designer Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg (Synthetic Aesthetics) in collaboration with scientists including Professor John Ward (UCL) and artist Oron Catts (SymbioticA UWA/Royal College of Art). The exchange process is intended to investigate and challenge existing notions of synthetic biology, the level of control and manipulation of living systems, the application of engineering logic, and the social and cultural dimensions of synthetic biology, with the intention to inspire proposals for future projects from all participants. Evening seminars and events during the course of the week broaden the exchange with the public.

The exchange lab introduces participants to concepts and cutting edge practical lab techniques from different areas of synthetic biology practice. The process enables diverse disciplines to examine together some of the emerging ideas and wider implications of synthetic biology and to form ideas for collaborative projects. Hands-on practicals, demonstrations and guest lectures are interspersed with opportunities for open discussion, encouraging participants to explore the impact of ‘biology as toolbox’. Seven themed modules frame the lab, cover the building of lab equipment, learning techniques associated with synthetic biology and molecular biology, plant biology and ecosystem design, the construction of life from scratch and the future vision of the field. Discussions include the differences between ‘life’ and ‘biology’ when it comes to designing living machines in the lab, the questions alternative living systems raise about natural versus unnatural, and the definition of life itself. By actively participating and being implicated in these designed transformations, we encourage participants to find new directions, approaches and challenges for the subject matter, from scientific to artistic research.

Synthesis is organised by The Arts Catalyst and UCL with Synthetic Aesthetics and SymbioticA. Synthesis is funded by a Wellcome Trust Arts Award, with support from The Arts Catalyst (Arts Council England funded), the SynBion Network (funded by BBSRC and EPSRC), SymbioticA (The University of Western Australia) and Synthetic Aesthetics (funded by EPSRC and the National Science Foundation).

Oron Catts. Photo: Melanie Jackson