A 100-page handbook and introductory reader to Synthetic Biology

We developed a handbook to accompany the workshop, with new contributions from cademics, artists and experts around the world. We developed new protocols for the workshop, each tied into the 7 themes that we explored.

See Syllabus for more information about the workshop content.

Handbook Introduction by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg

Synthetic biology is demanding we rethink our understanding of the natural world and life itself. It offers a future fashioned by engineering logic, a rational approach to the complexity of living systems powered by a binary vision of the world around us. There is a perceived fear from science of the public’s so-called misunderstanding: ‘if only they understood, they’d realise they want it’. This black and white absolutism permeates the field. Them and us. Utopia or dystopia. Synthetic biology’s offer is somewhat imperialistic: this is a technology that could solve all our problems, and who can argue with that? But it assumes that we all want the same thing, that is, technology.

Synbio is a field in its early adolescence, and one that has spent much of its early years defining itself as something different and new. As such, it still offers a one-size-fits-all future defined by polar paradigms: a disruptive technology (green) that won’t disrupt existing infrastructure (making gasoline so we can carry on regardless), a future where materials and chemicals are produced sustainably by bugs that will only live in the lab, yet simultaneously, powerful field technologies will clean up past mistakes (bioremediation) and enhance current methods (nitrogen-fixing bacteria for agriculture). We’re told synthetic biology is underscored by open source ideals modeled on information technology to empower the developing world, but it will likely be protected by first world patents. Meanwhile the spectre of the ‘Dual-Use Dilemma’ – of a good technology being harmful, either intentionally or not – means that the US Defense Threat Reduction Agency maintains a healthy interest, whilst Obama’s Bioethics Commission supports DIY biology enthusiasts’ experimenting.

But science and the public are not polar opposites; we are one and the same. We may not all be practitioners of science at the bench, but science belongs to us all. Just so, there is no one solution to the questions raised by synthetic biology, and no one approach to investigating the unknown territory as we move towards a functional redesign of nature.

This handbook provides an introduction and reader to frame these urgent themes for those considering the social, cultural and ethical implications of synthetic biology. It is by no means a complete review of the field, and issues that are well documented in the media and academic press such as intellectual property aren’t specifically covered here, for example.

Rather, we hope to provide a basis for a nuanced and subtle investigation of the field, for artists, designers, scientists and others alike, highlighting cutting edge

practice, debunking myths, and recognizing that the science is developing so fast, recent assumptions may need to be reformulated. In placing experiments and scientific explanations alongside philosophical, artistic and sociological discussion, can we reveal new ideas and issues? The field belongs to us all, and as such, different readers of this handbook will find the texts pertinent in different ways; we encourage you to share these observations as part of our collaborative, multi-disciplinary investigation.

The handbook and exchange lab are intended as a pilot, the first iteration of a different way of thinking about synthetic biology that we hope will become more prevalent. We welcome your suggestions and critique, and hope that the exchange will generate new material to include in future investigation of the field.


Editor: Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Synthetic Aesthetics, Stanford University/University of Edinburgh

Professor John Ward, Biochemistry, UCL

Nicola Triscott, The Arts Catalyst

Dr. Jane Gregory, Science & Technology Studies, UCL

Oron Catts, SymbioticA, University of Western Australia

Dr. Jane Calvert, Social & Political Science, University of Edinburgh

Dr. Alistair Elfick, Bioengineering, University of Edinburgh


ArtScienceBangalore iGEM Team 2010, Srishti School of Art, Design & Technology, India

Dr. Christina Agapakis, Systems Biology, Harvard Medical School, USA

Dr. Joe Cain, History & Philosophy of Biology, UCL, UK

Brendan Clarke, Science and Technology Studies, UCL, UK

Professor Ben Davis, Organic Chemistry, University of Oxford, UK

Dr. Cristina Del Bianco, Biochemistry, University of Trento, Italy

Dr. Drew Endy, Bioengineering, Stanford University, USA

Dr. Fernan Federici, Plant Science, University of Cambridge, UK

Dr. Markus Gershater, Biochemistry, UCL, UK

Andy Gracie, Artist, Hackteria, UK

Dr. Jim Haseloff, Plant Science, University of Cambridge, UK

Tito Jankowski, Biohacker, BioCurious, USA

Dr. Nick Lane, Evolutionary Biochemistry, UCL, UK

Mun Keat Looi, Science writer, Wellcome Trust, UK

Dr. Sheref Mansy, Biochemistry, University of Trento, Italy

Dr. Darren Nesbith, Biochemistry, UCL, UK

Sascha Pohflepp, Artist, Synthetic Aesthetics, Germany

Professor Brian Rappert, Scoiology & Philosophy, University of Exeter, UK

Dr. Emma Tobin, Science and Technology Studies, UCL, UK

Jim Thomas, Researcher/Campaigner, ETC Group, Canada

Dr. Benjamin Thompson, Science writer, Wellcome Trust, UK

Yashas Shetty, Artist, Hackteria, Srishti School of Art, Design & Technology, India

Sissel Tolaas, Smell artist, Synthetic Aesthetics, Re_searchLab, Germany

Paul Vanouse, Artist, University at Buffalo, USA