From Kitchen Sink to Museum: Doing and Debating Synthetic Biology

Project Description

Medical Museion is hosting an open biology laboratory and a series of public events from January-March 2013. The events are part of the European network, Studiolab, that provides a platform for creative projects that bridge divides between science, art and design.

A key principle of Studiolab is to experiment with merging the artist’s studio and research laboratory. This potentially enriches both practices, whilst also engaging public audiences in scientific creativity in innovative ways. In our project, we view the idea of studio + laboratory through the dual prism of museum + open biology. Both the museum and the open biology space occupy the territory between the studio and laboratory thus promising an even closer engagement and both place public accessibility center stage.

In an exhibition room Medical Museion will install an open biology lab – a space that allows participation and developing of experiments and which has potential for democratizing biological science. At a series of public events visitors will be able to take part, getting a material insight into synthetic biology that will ground informal discussion about the origins, principles, and ethics of synthetic and open biology. In the pioneering spirit of open-science, hacking, and punk aesthetics, this shifts the material process of laboratory protocols – and the creativity of experimental design – out of dominant research institutions such as universities and large corporations and into publicly accessible spaces.

The room will oscillate between active laboratory and an installation continually accessible to museum visitors, and online. Through recording of participants’ experiences the activities in the open lab will form part of the exhibition.

Synthetic biology is often described in engineering language: it promises to give us ‘biological bricks’; a ‘tool kit’ of standardized parts through which useful biological systems can be easily assembled and engineered. The expressed aim is to develop sustainable and cheap methods for cell-based production of e.g. biofuels, biochemicals, personalized drugs, and novel diagnostics. The means to reach these goals is to study biological systems in order to be able to construct similar systems, components, cells and organisms.

Together with increased knowledge sharing and digital fabrication of equipment, this ease with which one can engineer biology also opens up possibilities for non-traditional and non-regulated scholars and private persons, young and old, to get their hands dirty in open labs. In addition, synthetic biology brings an interesting (and to some disconcerting) twist to the idea of technology intervening in nature: here, nature is harnessed to create technology and vice versa, troubling the distinction itself.

The concern surrounding this vision of synthetic biology includes an impressive cast of characters: synthetic creations that run amok, ‘unnatural’ humans, and reckless or even malicious scientists. There is therefore much interest – also from the highest political level – in understanding public opinion and encouraging debate about synthetic biology futures as underlined by the international DIYbio outreach conferences in California hosted by the FBI in June 2012. Focus needs, however, also to be directed to the gritty, immediate questions about what synthetic biologists are actually doing, what are the short-term prospects, the barriers they face day to day, their perceptions of risk? And what kind of democratization does open science or biohacking actually provide, and for who? Or in other words, perhaps the ‘ethics is in the details’.

As a medical museum – a public space full of things – we are ideally placed to contribute to public engagement with the stuff of synthetic biology, grounding debates in encounters with synthetic biology at work. In combination with the hands-on events, we will therefore host a symposium at the end of the project in collaboration with University of Copenhagen’s UNIK Center for Synthetic Biology.

Our project is developed in partnership with:

  • Martin Malthe Borch, MSc Biological engineering, designer, co-founder of the local biohackerspace BiologiGaragen.
  • Sara Krugman, Health educator and Interaction designer, currently completing her masters at The Copenhagen School of Interaction Design. Co-founder of Line, working to make products and services that bring our health data into our hands.
  • Emil D. Lambreth Polny, project coordinator at UNIK Center for Synthetic Biology.
  • Ane Pilgaard Sørensen, designer and exhibition assistant at Medical Museion.
  • Thomas Söderqvist, professor and director at Medical Museion and initiator/responsible for the project.
  • Rüdiger Trojok, open-science scholar and molecular biologist, currently finishing his Masters at the Technical University of Denmark.
  • Karin Tybjerg, associate professor at Medical Museion and co-director of the project.
  • Louise Whiteley, assistant professor at Medical Museion and co-director of the project.

Contact at Medical Museion: Louise Whiteley (), Karin Tybjerg (), and Thomas Söderqvist ().