This is a project currently in progress.
A few months ago, I got a crash course and small taste of synthetic biology through a lab where I inserted a custom a DNA plasmid capable of producing fluorescent proteins in E. coli. Through the IGem Catalog of parts, one can browse many sequences that have known properties, almost like, (but not quite like) electronic components.
There are definitely many exciting innovations around the corner as we learn more about our Genome and synthesizing our own DNA.
- With the use of various bio sensors and reporters, we can potentially have plants that glow to tell us when levels of pollution in the environment have reached a dangerous level of toxicity.
- We can make personalized pharmaceuticals designed to attack diseases optimized for each individual patient.
- We can make bioluminescent plants to serve as a renewable light source in energy deficient geographies.
- We can enhance the nutritious quality of popular crops. At a recent IGem competition, one group proposed adding BetaCarotene and lycopene into Beer to make an colorful, vitamin enhanced libation.
The possibilities for innovation certainly go on, but in the spirit of design fiction, I wanted to speculate on a potential future that is muddled with capitalist agendas and human desires.
My B.Y.O. (Breed Your Own) fiction starts with a world where Media Lab has released the first advanced SynBio designer pet kit. Kids will save their lunch money to buy exotic genes to use in their projects. In this near future, your kids can learn about science in a very hands on way, kind of like with Arduinos and Little Bits-- but in this case they learn by designing plasmids, transforming bacteria, and growing different things.
There will be fascinating new games, like make the spikiest hedgehog! Or the cutest guinea pig, or broccoli that tastes most like junk food!
The design fiction is in speculating on what happens after the kids go to bed, when mom and dad sneak down to play with the toys.
The first two design fictions have to do with the power of smell, and its impact on memory and emotion. Maybe mom misses grandma, who passed away last year. maybe she breeds a cat that has her mother’s hair. She can take one whiff and be brought back to childhood.
Or maybe the mother designs a dog that smells like her husband for the nights she misses him on his long business trips. she can cuddle up to this warm body that smells just like the crook of his arm.
Maybe the teenage son sneaks down too....but he gets blueprints from 4chan to breed a sex pet.
Maybe the wife starts getting anxious. Perhaps she wants to make sure her husband isn’t seeing someone else. Maybe she tinkers with the B.Y.O. kit and designs a salamander that ejects its tail when it senses the pheromones of a woman different than her own.
But maybe the father has also done some experimenting, and he has made gut bacteria that makes his wife smell and taste like his mistress.
All of the ideas were inspired by attributes of living things that currently exist in nature: i.e. salamanders that eject their tails upon a certain stimulus, or micro biomes that effect the way you smell and taste. Potentially if we understood the genomes of these organisms and of sequencing DNA well enough, we could build BioBricks to express these traits. This is a design fiction was dreamt up to spark conversation and speculation on the darker, and potentially very human possible usages of synthetic biology, if something like BioBricks becomes as understandable and accessible as DIY electronics are today. Certainly the pioneers of the internet did not foresee its current uses; what will humans with their many facets and motivations dream up with DIY at home synbio?