Drop That Pipette: Science By Design

by Rachel Bernstein, Cell 147

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"An unexpected collaboration between a synthetic biology lab at UCSF and a Palo Alto-based design firm is stirring up the way that research is conceived and conducted, by integrating innovation and ‘‘design thinking’’ into the scientific method.

The poster session at the SB5.0 synthetic biology conference in Palo Alto last June appeared like any other. Postdocs and grad students mingled around posters describing microbes that produce hydrogen fuel, a programmable ‘‘killswitch’’ based on RNA, and bacteria that communicate by light. But one poster stood out from the rest. It didn’t present any data. About a quarter of it was blank. And, the author list included two designers who had barely touched a pipette. 

The poster, which earned an honorable mention, arose from an unusual collaboration between the design consultancy IDEO (pronounced ‘‘eye-dee-oh’’) and UCSF synthetic biologists Wendell Lim and Reid Williams. The goal of the project wasn’t to produce experimental results but rather to explore the places that synthetic biology could go in the future.

‘‘A lot of thework in the lab todayisworking on pretty far-off goals,’’ says Adam Reineck, one of the IDEO designers involved in the project, ‘‘so one of our goals was to see how synthetic biology could apply more directly to people’s every-day lives.’’

In that vein, the poster presented three proposals for new directions in synthetic biology research. Each idea began with the word ‘‘envision,’’ followed by a brief description and possible scientific approach; for example, ‘‘envision’’ a cup made of organic material that produces a probiotic drink when filled and then decomposes after a few uses. 

These ‘‘sacrificial ideas’’ were meant to be jumping-off points for discussion and innovation. Viewers were encouraged to add their own thoughts to the poster by voting for their favorite ideas with postits or writing comments directly on the poster’s blank space.... 

Read the rest here.

By Rachel Bernstein
Published: Cell 147, October 28, 2011 2011 Elsevier Inc.