The Irrational Genome Design Contest

By Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Thresholds, MIT Department of Architecture

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“A myth is a lie that tells the truth,” says Arshia Sattar, Sanskrit scholar and expert on Indian mythology to a group of teenage art and design students from Bangalore entering iGEM, MIT’s annual International Genetically Engineered Machine competition, a synthetic biology legend in itself.1 We are sitting out on a terrace in Bangalore on a sweltering mid-summer night, eating pizza, and sipping Thums Up laced with Indian rum. It is my birthday.

A few weeks earlier, Yokohama, Japan: 

“An international competition to support future specialists in rational genome designs for synthetic biology;” a press release announces a new synthetic biology competition, the International Rational Genome-Design Contest, GenoCon, launched by the Bioinformatics and Systems Engineering division of the RIKEN research institute. Rationality. That’s the key to synthetic biology. Synthetic biology rejects contextual solutions and disorder in favor of control and rationality. Binary biology. Universal solutions. Predictive not descriptive.

“The first self-replicating species that we’ve had on the planet whose parent is a computer,” proclaimed one American character in this story, J. Craig Venter, earlier this month as he announced to the world his lab’s achievement in creating what they described as the world’s ‘first synthetic cell.’

Synbio’s multiple protagonists promise to engineer life into a state of functional order. No gray space here; just black and white promise. We can save the world: through limitless diesel pumped out by safely lab-locked bacteria fed a syrupy diet of Brazilian sugarcane, or by their engineered cousins, just as safe, released into the great oil slicks of dirty technologies to digest their failures. Or so it is claimed. These stories are the myths manufactured to help us get closer to the scientific truth.

Just as in Indian mythology—as Arshia reminds us back on the terrace, horns beeping and dogs barking out in the darkness of the Bangalore night—myths have variants. Synthetic Biology is a story told in different ways by its different characters. Of course, manufacturing myths does not imply intentional misconstruction; this is about metaphor and storytelling, an integral part of science. Imagining promise allows us to fulfill it. This is how science and technology works, how we develop enthusiasm to pursue these imagined futures, how science funding works. We’re always looking towards ‘New Horizons.’

The Irrational Genome Design Contest is a fictional competition I’m inventing right now to add to the synbio myth. But let us start nearer to the beginning. Since the synthetic biology story could turn into an epic, we’re probably only in the first few pages.

Read the rest here 

By Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, in Thresholds Issue 38, MIT Department of Architecture
Edited by Orkan Telhan