A briefcase full of poop changed my life. Ten years ago, I was a graduate student and I was helping judge a genetic engineering competition for undergrads. There, I met a British artist and designer named Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg.
She was wearing the white embroidered polo shirt of the University of Cambridge team and holding a silver briefcase, like the kind that you would imagine is handcuffed to your wrist. She gestured over from a quiet corner and asked me if I wanted to see something.
With a sneaky look, she opened up the suitcase, and inside were six glorious, multicolored turds. The Cambridge team, she explained, had spent their summer engineering the bacteria E. coli to be able to sense different things in the environment and produce a rainbow of different colors in response.
Arsenic in your drinking water? This strain would turn green. She and her collaborator, the designer James King, worked with the students and imagined the different possible scenarios of how you might use these bacteria.
What if, they asked, you could use them as a living probiotic drink and health monitor, all in one? You could drink the bacteria and it would live in your gut, sensing what’s going on, and then in response to something, it would be able to produce a colored output.
Holy shit! The Cambridge team went on to win the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition, or iGEM for short. And as for me, those turds were a turning point. I am a synthetic biologist, which is probably a weird term that most people aren’t familiar with.
It definitely sounds like an oxymoron. How can biology, something natural, be synthetic? How can something artificial be alive? Synthetic biologists sort of poke holes in that boundary that we draw between what is natural and what’s technological.
And every year, iGEM students from all over the world spend their summer trying to engineer biology to be technology. They teach bacteria how to play sudoku, they make multicolored spider silk, they make self-healing concrete and tissue printers and plastic-eating bacteria.
Up until that moment, though, I was a little bit more concerned with a different kind of oxymoron. Just plain old genetic engineering. The comedian Simon Munnery once wrote that genetic engineering is actually insulting to proper engineering.
Genetic engineering is more like throwing a bunch of concrete and steel in a river and if somebody can walk across, you call it a bridge. And so synthetic biologists were pretty worried about this, and worried that genetic engineering was a little bit more art that science.
They wanted to turn genetic engineering into a real engineering discipline, where we could program cells and write DNA the way that engineers write software for computers. That day 10 years ago started me on a path that gets me to where I am now.
Today, I’m the creative director at a synthetic biology company called Ginkgo Bioworks. “Creative director” is a weird title for a biotech company were people try to program life the way that we program computers.
But that day when I met Daisy, I learned something about engineering. I learned that engineering isn’t really just about equations and steel and circuits, it’s actually about people. It’s something that people do, and it impacts us.
So in my work, I try to open up new spaces for different kinds of engineering. How can we ask better questions, and can we have better conversations about what we want from the future of technology? How can we understand the technological but also social and political and economic reasons that GMOs are so polarizing in our society? Can we make GMOs that people love? Can we use biology to make technology that’s more expansive and regenerative? I think it starts by recognizing that we, as synthetic biologists, are also shaped by a culture that values “real engineering” more than any of the squishy stuff.
We get so caught up in circuits and what happens inside of computers, that we sometimes lose sight of the magic that’s happening inside of us. There is plenty of shitty technology out there, but this was the first time that I imagined poop as technology.
I began to see that synthetic biology was awesome, not because we could turn cells into computers, but because we could bring technology to life. This was technology that was visceral, an unforgettable vision of what the future might hold.
But importantly, it was also framed as the question “Is this the kind of future that we actually want?” We’ve been promised a future of chrome, but what if the future is fleshy? Science and science fiction help us remember that we’re made of star stuff.
But can it also help us remember the wonder and weirdness of being made of flesh? Biology is us, it’s our bodies, it’s what we eat. What happens when biology becomes technology? These images are questions, and they challenge what we think of as normal and desirable.
And they also show us that the future is full of choices and that we could choose differently. What’s the future of the body, of beauty? If we change the body, will we have new kinds of awareness? And will new kinds of awareness of the microbial world change the way that we eat? The last chapter of my dissertation was all about cheese that I made using bacteria that I swabbed from in between my toes.
I told you that the poop changed my life. I worked with the smell artist and researcher Sissel Tolaas to explore all of the ways that our bodies and cheese are connected through smell and therefore microbes.
And we created this cheese to challenge how we think about the bacteria that’s part of our lives and the bacteria that we work with in the lab. We are, indeed, what we eat. The intersection of biology and technology is more often told as a story of transcending our fleshy realities.
If you can upload your brain to a computer, you don’t need to poop anymore after all. And that’s usually a story that’s told as a good thing, right? Because computers are clean, and biology is messy.
Computers make sense and are rational, and biology is an unpredictable tangle. It kind of follows from there that science and technology are supposed to be rational, objective and pure, and it’s humans that are a total mess.
But like synthetic biologists poke holes in that line between nature and technology, artists, designers and social scientists showed me that the lines that we draw between nature, technology and society are a little bit softer than we might think.
They challenge us to reconsider our visions for the future and our fantasies about controlling nature. They show us how our prejudices, our hopes and our values are embedded in science and technology through the questions that we ask and the choices that we make.
They make visible the ways that science and technology are human and therefore political. What does it mean for us to be able to control life for our own purposes? The artists Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr made a project called “Victimless Leather,” where they engineered a tiny leather jacket out of mouse cells.
Is this jacket alive? What does it take to grow it and keep it this way? Is it really victimless? And what does it mean for something to be victimless? The choices that we make in what we show and what we hide in our stories of progress, are often political choices that have real consequences.
How will genetic technologies shape the way that we understand ourselves and define our bodies? The artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg made these faces based on DNA sequences she extracted from sidewalk litter, forcing us to ask questions about genetic privacy, but also how and whether DNA can really define us.
How will we fight against and cope with climate change? Will we change the way that we make everything, using biological materials that can grow and decay alongside us? Will we change our own bodies? Or nature itself? Or can we change the system that keeps reinforcing those boundaries between science, society, nature and technology? Relationships that today keep us locked in these unsustainable patterns.
How we understand and respond to crises that are natural, technical and social all at once, from coronavirus to climate change, is deeply political, and science never happens in a vacuum. Let’s go back in time to when the first European settlers arrived in Hawaii.
They eventually brought their cattle and their scientists with them. The cattle roamed the hillsides, trampling and changing the ecosystems as they went. The scientists catalogued the species that they found there, often taking the last specimen before they went extinct.
This is the Maui hau kuahiwi, or the Hibiscadelphus wilderianus, so named by Gerrit Wilder in 1910. By 1912, it was extinct. I found this specimen in the Harvard University Herbarium, where it’s housed with five million other specimens from all over the world.
I wanted to take a piece of science’s past, tied up as it was with colonialism, and all of the embedded ideas of the way that nature and science and society should work together, and ask questions about science’s future.
Working with an awesome team at Ginkgo, and others at UC Santa Cruz, we were able to extract a little bit of the DNA from a tiny sliver of this plant specimen and to sequence the DNA inside. And then resynthesize a possible version of the genes that made the smell of the plant.
By inserting those genes into yeast, we could produce little bits of that smell and be able to, maybe, smell a little bit of something that’s lost forever. Working again with Daisy and Sissel Tolaas, my collaborator on the cheese project, we reconstructed and composed a new smell of that flower, and created an installation where people could experience it, to be part of this natural history and synthetic future.
Ten years ago, I was a synthetic biologist worried that genetic engineering was more art than science and that people were too messy and biology was too complicated. Now I use genetic engineering as art to explore all the different ways that we are entangled together and imagine different possible futures.
A fleshy future is one that does recognize all those interconnections and the human realities of technology. But it also recognizes the incredible power of biology, its resilience and sustainability, its ability to heal and grow and adapt.
Values that are so necessary for the visions of the futures that we can have today. Technology will shape that future, but humans make technology. How we decide what that future will be is up to all of us.