A Natural History of the Synthetic Future
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. No more petrochemicals: instead, pick a feature from an existing organism, locate its DNA code and insert it into a biological chassis. From DIY hacked bacteria to entirely artificial, corporate life-forms, engineered life will compute, produce energy, clean up pollution, make self-healing materials, kill pathogens and even do the housework. Manufacturers will transcend biomimicry, engineering bacteria to secrete keratin for sustainable vacuum cleaner casings; synthesise biodegradable gaskets from abalone shell proteins and fill photocopier toner cartridges with photosensitive E. coli. 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 the natural world, but living machines need controlling. Biology doesn’t respect boundaries or patents. And in simplifying life to its molecular interactions, might we accidently degrade our sense of self? Are promises of sustainability and unparalleled good health seductive enough to accept such compromise?
Would you leave your body to science, business or art?
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.