School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT
This piece will appear in the December 2013 issue of STUDIES IN HISTORY AND PHILOSOPHY OF BIOLOGICAL AND BIOMEDICAL SCIENCES
“It’s often said that if you really want to understand something, then what you should do is build it.” So we hear from an armchair-nestled Simon Schaffer at the start of his brilliant recent BBC film Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams. The marvels of his title are automata: those often startlingly beautiful sculpture-machines that, from the medieval period to the nineteenth century, thrilled European audiences by not just looking like living beings but, thanks to intricate clockwork within, moving like them.
To see surviving examples of automata in action – an insect scuttling across a table, a boy writing (with enviable penmanship) at his desk, a whole bustling city street scene – is to appreciate at once why they impressed as they did, how skilful were the artisans who made them, and how uncomfortable, even dangerous, were the questions they raised. For if people can make machines that seem so much like real people, then might people too really be nothing but clever clockwork? And if that’s so even for the aristocrats who paid for the automata (many of which mirrored their patrons’ powdered, pampered lives), then what gave kings, queens and the rest the right to lord it over everyone else?
Schaffer’s film reminds us that “maker’s knowledge” – as the doctrine that building-brings-understanding came to be known – has long been potent stuff, with a tendency to unsettle established orders of all sorts, from the cognitive to the political. Anyone wanting to observe its power in the present would do well to consider a science whose practitioners aim, like the automata artisans of old, to make technological marvels straddling the border between the living and the mechanical.
Articles and documentaries about “synthetic biology” have been making their way through the pop-sci-sphere for some years now. The mission, one learns, is to remake genetics into a proper branch of engineering. Yes, it’s acknowledged, there’s already something called “genetic engineering,” dedicated to splicing DNA from genome to genome, for purposes of scientific research and, in the biotechnology sector that has grown up alongside, the development of new drugs, disease-resistant crops and so on. But from an echt engineering point of view, the approach to problem-solving looks inefficient. What’s missing, we’re told, is a toolkit that includes, in addition to the familiar cutting and pasting enzymes, a range of standardized DNA components that can be arranged and rearranged to achieve different effects, depending on the job at hand. Assembling and then exploiting that toolkit is the role that synthetic biologists have assigned themselves.
Talk of revolutionary change comes too easily to many scientists and science publicists. But equally, scepticism about such talk can come too easily to historians of science. True to type, I’ve been noticing the way that transgenic “spider goats,” whose milk contains spider silk thanks to spider DNA spliced into their genomes, are coming to embody the promise of synthetic biology, though they are products of the genetic-engineering olden days. All the more reason, then, for me to make my way down to an empty storefront in a not-yet-fashionable district of Leeds on a recent drizzly Wednesday evening for, as the advertisement promised, a “hands-on introduction to synthetic biology and DIY biohacking.”
“Hands-on”: a good sign that maker’s knowledge will be in the offing. And indeed, the group hosting this event, calling itself the Superposition, is a collective of Leeds-based scientists and artist who – again I quote from the e-flyer I saw – “embrace the maker movement. Makers are DIY technologists who experiment with and repurpose technology to prototype new inventions, using everything from 3D printers and laser cutters to Arduinos and Raspberry Pis.”
Much of the hardware dotted around the large space of this pop-up lab/workshop is at the decidedly low-tech end of this spectrum: an old film projector; some overhead projectors; a tapedeck with a turntable and, alongside, two big speakers seemingly covered in tweed. The overall vibe is funky-nerdy cool. There’s a white spheroid chair with a red-cushioned interior, like something from the set of a futuristic 1970s sitcom. There’s a computer in the corner where a guy is, I’m told, “doing coding.” Earlier in the day I could have seen somebody else working away at fiction inspired by chats with the more scientific locals about quantum mechanics. There are two science-music installations in progress, one made up of foam-filled beach balls hung from the ceiling in columns, the other a framework of metal bars.
But I’m here to learn about, and maybe even do, synthetic biology. Before long we’re underway, first with three short talks. A Leeds University colleague I’ve never met before, Dr Lorna Dougan, from Physics, starts us off with a helpful overview of the field. My sense of joining a technoscientific counterculture quickly becomes more complicated, as she tells us of the millions in research funding that the British government is now pouring into synthetic biology. The spider goats come up, yes, but also, fascinatingly, her own group’s research on the proteins that make life possible in the most extreme environments on Earth, and the possibilities that might be opening up for the invention of new “biomimetic” materials.
That sounds splendid. But is it synthetic biology – as distinct from, say, biophysics, as practised for decades in Leeds as elsewhere? The Leeds context makes the question nag with particular force. It was in Leeds, exactly a century ago, that a professor of physics, W. H. Bragg, working with his son Lawrence, invented X-ray crystallography, and so first enabled the rigorous working out of the three-dimensional structure of molecules. A couple of decades later, a former student of theirs, William Astbury, pioneered the use of the technique to study biological molecules, beginning with keratin, the main protein ingredient in wool. That starting point was no accident. Astbury’s field, according to his first job title, was “textile physics.” Funding for his position had come from the clothworkers in Leeds, whose industrial might was founded upon woollen textiles. The hope was that knowing something about wool’s molecular structure might one day make possible the artificial synthesis of wool and other fibres, thus liberating the industry from its dependence on the suppliers of the natural stuff. Soon Astbury came up with his own name for what he was doing: “molecular biology.” The name went on to glory, though another, “biophysics,” came to be favoured for the sort of molecular-structure work, fundamental and applied, that followed in Astbury’s wake.
Undoubtedly historians of science worry about, and at, such labels far more than scientists do. Even so, it was striking to see how completely “synthetic biologist” did seem an excellent fit for the next speaker. Paul Turner is part of a gang of eight students in physics, biochemistry, nanotechnology and neuroscience who, he explained, are collaborating on the first ever entry from Leeds to the annual International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. Their plan is to use some of the standardized components currently available – “BioBricks,” as they’re called – to transform the humble gut bacterium E. coli into a detector, capable of indicating the presence of disease-causing microbes in water. When the device is plunged into a sample of water harbouring these microbes (or, in the model system being used, silicon beads), these will – it’s hoped – bind to the E. coli cell membrane, stressing the membrane physically in such a way as to induce the switching on of a gene expressing a green-glowing protein, visible to the naked eye.
I’m not sure exactly where to draw the line between things that count as genetically engineered machines and things that don’t. But a biosensor of the Leeds group’s sort seems to me to count if anything does. And it’s hard to see what not to like, and like a lot, in all of this, from the youthful ingenuity being tapped to the prospect of its generating something useful in saving lives. Listening to Turner, I feel my sceptical defences dropping.
They drop further with the third talk, from Jo Leng, also based at Leeds, though tonight representing the Manchester chapter of DIYBio. She’s someone who wants to learn more about biology by having a go with others who share her interests (the “biocurious,” to use her term), and without the confinements of formal degree study. In another era, someone so inclined would probably have joined a local natural history society. I get the impression that DIYBioers are no more likely than the rest of us to know the names of birds and trees. The Manchester chapter’s symbol is a pipette crossed with a screwdriver. On the scale of biological organization, it’s the span from DNA to microbes that interests them – the territory of synthetic biology. And on the scale of political organization, it’s wherever you put libertarian. Other affiliated movements she mentions include Citizen Science, Maker communities, Open Source Innovation, and Frugal Science. DIYBioers are the people who will tell you how to build yourself a decently kitted-out molecular biology lab, on the cheap.
Time for some actual biohacking. At one table, what’s being hacked are kiwi fruits. Under Leng’s tuition, hands are soon busying themselves with kiwis, knives, salt, water, vodka, pineapple juice and dishwashing liquid. In a little while, a white stringy fuzz – the DNA – appears on top of the fruit slurry. Over at the other table, Turner shows how to break into a webcam and flip the lens, creating a computer-linked microscope. It’s all some way down from iGEM-winning synthetic biology. But it’s also some way up from merely biospectating.
What is the knowledge of life being made here, among the pipettes and the screwdrivers? In a synth-bio device, the hidden mechanism is DNA-work. In real organisms, of course, DNA does plenty. But what it does depends, to varying degrees, on what is around it. Environments, physiological and physico-chemical, matter, sometimes a lot. And so does chance. “Beyond Nature and Nurture” was the title of a recent New Scientist article on how identical twins given exactly the same upbringing, down to a nicety, would nevertheless be expected to turn out differently due to chance divergences. DNA, environments, chance, interacting all the way down: those are the main elements in one widely available account of what bodies are. Yet that account has proved easily ignorable or compartmentalized. We are not encouraged to look at spider goats and think: DNA, environments, chance, all the way down. We are encouraged to look at spider goats and think: DNA.
So too with the biomachines of synthetic biology dreams. The same New Scientist carried a respectful interview with one of the leading figures in the field. He looks, in his sneakers and sweatshirt, like a Facebook-style master of the universe in waiting. And he talks only of DNA.
Potent stuff, maker’s knowledge. Although clockwork turned out to be of limited use for understanding living bodies, automata inspired action that changed the world. (Schaffer’s film implicates them in both the French and the Industrial Revolutions.) As models of living bodies, synthetic biological machines are less misleading. They will undoubtedly get more impressive, maybe even, outwardly, more lifelike. But it’s a good bet that their success will depend on a lot of ingenious backstage engineering, devoted to the technofixes needed to stabilize the functioning of the DNA-work over ever larger ranges of environments, and to buffer the devices from outrageous fortune’s slings and arrows. Nevertheless, expect changes ahead, perhaps even – if the ambitions on display in that Leeds storefront are anything to go by – benign ones.
 And the hpbio-sphere too. See, in this journal, the substantial collections in this issue and the June 2013 issue.
 Cf. Adam Rutherford, “Synthetic biology and the rise of the ‘spider goats’,” Observer online edition, 14 January 2012.
 For Astbury and the Braggs, see Kersten Hall, The man in the monkeynut coat: William Astbury and the forgotten road to the double-helix. Oxford: Oxford University Press (to be published in June 2014).
 Helen Pilcher, “Beyond nature and nurture,” New Scientist 31 August 2013: 44‒47.
 Douglas Heaven, “Downloading DNA [interview with Drew Endy],” New Scientist 31 August 2013: 28‒29.
 On the role of pragmatic problem-solving in the making of the new biomachines, see Maureen O’Malley, “Exploration, iterativity and kludging in synthetic biology,” Comptes Rendus Chimie 14 (2011): 406‒412.
 I have dwelt here on dreams, but the pop-sci-sphere supplies nightmares too. On the “personalized bioweapons” to come, see Andrew Hessel et al., “Hacking the President’s DNA,” Atlantic November 2012.