Celebrating Synthetic Biology

(November, 14th, 2017) We have all heard that synthetic biology can improve our quality of life. But do we really know what it entails? In October, the SynCity Film & Art Festival shed some light on synthetic biology research and raised awareness about its importance.

Biology is a fascinating subject. The traditional method for studying life is by taking it apart, piece by piece. Cell biologists, for example, break cells up into separate structural components. Synthetic biology, on the other hand, uses these components to build up biological systems.

In this way, synthetic biology allows researchers to turn scientific facts into precise statements. For instance, it's much more precise to say: "Protein X is the cause of disease Y, and we can get rid of the disease by engineering bacteria that feed on Protein X" than "Protein X travels through the cell depending on how stressed the cell is" - a statement based on more traditional biology. In the former scenario, synthetic biology designs these bacteria in order to help cure the disease. Richard Feynman summarised the aim of synthetic biology quite perfectly by saying: "What I cannot create, I do not understand".

In order to raise public awareness about the many benefits of synthetic biology, scientists at the Wageningen University in The Netherlands organised a two-day SynCity Film & Art Festival on 5th-6th October 2017. The aim was to explain to the public what synthetic biology is, showcase examples of research carried out in this field, and explain how it might benefit healthcare, food provision and renewable energy production.

Creatively, the organisers combined science with art, such as by presenting futuristic movies, to reach an even wider, non-scientific audience. Attendees were also encouraged to express their views on this topic, and thus contribute directly to the shape of future synthetic biology research.

The festival covered four topics:

  • new ecosystems: re-designing the composition of bacteria in the soil to make crops resistant to pests, or in the human intestine to cure diseases
  • new materials from bacteria or mould: creating bacteria that can act as medicines
  • mathematics and engineering: explaining that these form the skeleton of synthetic biology
  • social questions: bonding with the societal views and concerns about the new field in order to meet the demands of the human population

Entry at all events was free. As a warm-up, the organisers showed the movie "Code 46", a British "dystopic science fiction love story exploring the implications of current trends in biotechnology". The festival then explored the connection between man and man-made biological systems, and how these might affect human relations to nature. How far can a human being go in designing biology? Can we design a new form of life? The first day was packed with talks by experts as well as documentaries about the work at the interface between synthetic biology and art. The second day featured more screenings of movies, like "Gattaca", displays of art created by students, reflection on ideas left by the attendees, a dinner, and the Let's Get Funky Tonight with Power to the Pipo event.

This festival certainly was a great way to get society excited about synthetic biology and perhaps also science in general.

Nadejda Capatina

Image: Army Research Laboratory

Last Changes: 12.07.2017