How will we classify what is natural or unnatural when life is built from scratch? Synthetic biology is turning to the living kingdoms for its materials library. It promises no more petrochemicals: instead, pick a feature from an existing organism, locate its DNA and insert into a biological chassis. Engineered life could compute, produce energy, clean up pollution, kill pathogens and even do the housework. Meanwhile, we’ll have to add an extra branch to the Tree of Life. The Synthetic Kingdom is part of our new nature.
Biotech promises us control over nature, but living machines need controlling. Biology doesn’t respect boundaries or patents. Are promises of sustainability and healthiness seductive enough to accept such compromise?
PROMISE & COMPROMISE: SYNTHETIC PATHOLOGIES
Materials impregnated with bacterial and viral predators mean natural disease is a distant memory. But now we must contend with synthetic pathologies. Bacteria occasionally escape from factories, DIY labs and broken products, colonising our internal bodily tracts. There they flourish, simply doing what we designed them to do: to manufacture goods. Sometimes they swap DNA via plasmid rings and evolve—as bacteria are wont to do—combining to form novel growths within the body. Synthetic infection can be profitable and even beautiful. Would you leave your body to science, business or art?
Photographs: Carole Suety
Animation: Cath Elliot
With thanks: Fiona Raby, Design Interactions and the RCA, James Chappell, Dr Richard Ashcroft, Oron Catts, Caitlin Cockerton, Dr John Goulding, Dr Jim Haseloff, Dr Robert James, James King , Dr Su-Lin Lee, Steve Ramsey, Dr Tom Sopwith, Professor Raymond Tallis, Dr Dave West.
Installation view, Vitra Design Museum Gallery, 2019. Photograph: © Vitra Design Museum, Bettina Matthiesen.1/14
The Synthetic Kingdom, a proposal for a new branch of the tree of life to accommodate our ‘new nature.’1/3