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SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY: MACHINE OR LIFE?
20 Oct 2011; Laura Cinti - 01 Aug 2013

Finalising UCL’s iGEM activities for 2011 was the art-meets-science event focusing on synthetic biology at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre in London as part of the London Science Festival programme. The event included a panel discussion organised by UCL iGEM and a series of video screenings liaised by Laura Cinti (C-LAB) .

Howard Boland, 'Stress-o-stat', 2011Howard Boland, Stress-o-stat (2011)


The discussion panel with talks by Philipp Boeing (UCL iGEM 2011), Dr Joe Cain (UCL), Howard Boland (C-LAB) and Dr Brendan Clarke (UCL) looked at how synthetic biology operates as part of the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM), scientifically and in socio-political contexts. Questions were raised on how the public(s) can take ownership and play a role in the development of synthetic biology. There is a sense of dissonance between the impact we have on technological development and the role they play in shaping our future. For many in the audience there was a need to discuss how we become stakeholders in these debates.

Dana Centre, Science Museum, London, UK Invited panelists,  Dr Joe Cain, Dr Brendan Clarke, UCL and UCL iGEM 2011 team, Howard Boland (c-lab),  Alfred Ho and Louis Stupple-Harris (UCL iGEM 2011)Invited speakers Dr Joe Cain and Brendan Clarke, Dana Centre, Science Museum, London, UKInvited panelists, Dr Joe Cain and Dr Brendan ClarkeUCL.

Synthetic Biology: Machine or Life?, Dana Centre, Science Museum, London, UK
Synthetic Biology debate at the Dana Centre, Science Museum, London.


The topic of the event was 'Synthetic Biology: Life or Machine' and, as some suggested, the synthetic may be thought of as a fusion between 'Life and Machine' rather than a separation. Discourses of 'Life-Machine' have a ramified history, stretching back to the ancient Greeks and was perhaps most potently communicated by the 17th century philosopher and physician Julien Offray de La Mettrie in his book ‘L'homme Machine’.  How is synthetic biology tackling notions of 'Life and Machine' through its application of engineering principles and terminologies to biology? Phrases such as 'chassie' are used to describe 'organisms'.  This suggests that DNA is an interchangeable 'engine' between 'shell's of organisms'.

The videos screened connected these themes through their engagement with life and synthetics. Andy Gracie’s 43.25.5.37 (2010) provides a microscope journey of a water droplet teeming with life from a single location.

Andy Gracie, '43.25.5.37', 2010.Footage of organisms taken from the coordinates N 43' 25" W 5' 37" at 100x magnification under a microscope, with soundtrack.
Eric Schockmel
 takes us to a strangely animated world where machines are in charge of life, constantly engineering it, reversing the notion of Life-Machine. 

Eric Schockmel, 'Occupation: Movements II & III', (2010) Deals with an ecological narrative, visually reminiscent of video game design and science-fiction.



In Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, James King and Cambridge iGEM 2009’s video E.chromi we see how synthetic biology can use colours to detect substances and speculates on future scenarios. 


Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, James King & the Cambridge University iGEM 2009 team, 'E. chromi', 2009.  



And finally, the Cambridge iGEM 2010 team showed a 'bubble glow lamp' that considers how synthetic biology may soon become part of our appliances. 

Cambridge iGEM 2010, 'The Bacterial Bubble Lamp', 2010. A bubble lamp made from a culture of genetically engineered E. coli. 

Due to GMO (genetically modified organisms) regulations some artworks had to be excluded. However, we are soon expecting to showcase Howard Boland’s (C-LAB) living synthetic biology works, such as the 'stress-o-stat' and 'banana bacteria' displays.

Howard Boland, 'Banana Bacteria', 2011
Howard Boland, 'Banana Bacteria', 2011


Dana centre
 provided a flawless event through excellent management and technical organisation. We thank the over 80 guests for joining us on a brisk autumn night in London and help speculate on synthetic biology and its future.

Other References: C-LAB:blog: Gene machine takes the prize
C-LAB:blog: KatE in a Jar
C-LAB:blog: London Hackspace at UCL Cruciform Lab
C-LAB:blog: Red Fluorescent Protein
C-LAB:blog: Right or Risk? Preparation at London Hackspace
C-LAB:blog: Synthetic Biology, Creating ring pattern in a lawn of bacteria
C-LAB:blog: Synthetic Biology, Programmed Population Control
C-LAB:blog: Synthetic Life - getting serious about genetic engineering
C-LAB:blog: The Gibson Assembly Song
C-LAB:blog: Tic toc goes the bacteria clock
C-LAB:blog: Visiting London Hackspace with UCL iGEM
C-LAB:blog: Visiting the Grant Museum of Zoology
C-LAB:event: CAGE RATTLING #1: KILL SWITCH
C-LAB:event: EVAPORATION OF THINGS
C-LAB:event: GROW YOUR OWN
C-LAB:event: RE-NEW DIGITAL ARTS FESTIVAL
C-LAB:event: RIGHT OR RISK? WORLD'S FIRST PUBLIC BIOBRICK
C-LAB:event: SPEED DEBATE ON SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY AND NEURO-ETHICS
C-LAB:event: SYNTHESIS: SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY IN ART & SOCIETY
C-LAB:event: SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY SOCIETY KICK OFF EVENT
C-LAB:event: SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY SPEED DEBATE
C-LAB:event: SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY: MACHINE OR LIFE?
C-LAB:project: Banana Bacteria
C-LAB:project: Stress-o-stat
Dana Centre: Synthetic Biology: Machine or Life?
Grow Your Own: where scientists and artists are shaking up creation
London Science Festival: Synthetic Biology: Machine or Life?
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