In Arc 1.3: Christina Agapakis among the misfits and visionaries of DIY-bio

9 Oct

Synthetic biology promises to make life clean and tidy. Thank goodness, then, for the misfits and dreamers of DIY-bio, says Christina Agapakis…

Industrialised biotechnology offers us commoditised biology, simplified and sterilised, hidden in vats pumping out medicines and fuels. In food and agriculture, biotechnology leaves us with just a handful of species that we then process into the thousands of products you can find at the supermarket. A team of iGEM students I mentored for the 2010 competition asked whether iGEM’s standardised parts could instead lead to a garden, its plants modified to produce different colours and flavours.

Our team wasn’t immune from the iGEM trend towards gears and mechanisation (a friend, more cynical than I am, once suggested that iGEM’s primary output is actually logos with cells turning into gears). Still, we tried to include imagination, aesthetics, and taste in our engineering strategy, to make biotechnologies at the human scale. Food is not just fuel; it’s life, cuisine, and culture. Our bodies aren’t machines; they are complex biological systems, assemblages of human and microbial cells that grow and change. The genomes of the human ecosystem can be read and perhaps even rewritten, but they will still respond to our environment, to our food, to our culture, in varied and beautiful ways.

@thisischristina is a synthetic biologist, educator, and Scientific American blogger exploring the role of ecology, evolution, and design in biological engineering. She works at UCLA in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and the Art | Science Center.

Read more in Arc 1.3 a digital quarterly about the future, made for e-readers, tablets, phones and computer screens; also available in a collectible print edition. Visit for details

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