Update: Synthetic Aesthetics in Biodesign for the Bioeconomy

Wednesday, 30 March 2016 – Synthetic Aesthetics

When the UK’s new Strategic Plan for UK synthetic biology, Biodesign for the Bioeconomy, was published earlier this month we were pleased that the Synthetic Aesthetics project had been chosen as a case study, but disappointed that the project had been mispresented as setting out to “beautify or better communicate the science”, which was precisely not what we were trying to do.

We wrote an Open Letter to the Synthetic Biology Leadership Council explaining this point, and they reacted promptly by changing the document. The new text (on p.24) is a much better summary of our work. It notes that the project led to the “consideration of futures that might transcend current industrial framings”.

We are very grateful for the efforts that went into changing to text and reissuing the Strategic Plan. However, we think that two important issues remain.

The first is that the original mistake reflects the widespread assumption that the only role for art and design in synthetic biology is to “beautify or better communicate the science”, so it is not surprising that this statement did not attract attention during the drafting of the Strategic Plan. 

It is a long-term endeavour to debunk this assumption, and to show that art/science engagement should provoke reflection and critique, rather than just constituting a public relations service for a scientific field. We hope that the Synthetic Aesthetics project has demonstrated that the benefits of actual engagement with art and design are far greater than can be achieved by putting these disciplines in a subordinate role.

The second point, which we made in our original letter, is that the notion of ‘biodesign’ that has been adopted in the Strategic Plan is very narrowly defined, and implies that the only end to which design can be put is economic expansion. The Synthetic Aesthetics project showed that design should be connected to a much broader range of values. Importantly, one of our key motivations was to open up discussions about what counts as good design in synthetic biology, and who gets to decide. As we wrote in our letter to the SBLC, “Design does not only serve industry and economic growth; good design enables citizens and society and should serve the common good.” Synthetic biology is promoted as a sustainable, disruptive technology, but will the current vision simply perpetuate the same systems of production? What does a truly sustainable, disruptive or open synthetic biology look like? 

We are glad that our project is no longer misrepresented in the Strategic Plan, but we think that these broader issues cannot be resolved without open, inclusive and interdisciplinary discussions about synthetic biology and all its future directions.

Direct link to this page

Letter to the Synthetic Biology Leadership Council

Wednesday, 16 March 2016 – Synthetic Aesthetics

" Design does not only serve industry and economic growth; good design enables citizens and society and should serve the common good."  

The UK's Synthetic Biology Leadership Council (SBLC) has published the new Synthetic Biology Strategic Plan 2016: Biodesign for the Bioeconomy. Further information and online version of the printed report are available here). 

In response, the authors of Synthetic Aesthetics address the following letter to the SLBC (PDF):

Direct link to this page

Synthetic Aesthetics Friday Late at the V&A

Thursday, 1 May 2014 – Synthetic Aesthetics

V&A Friday Late – Synthetic Aesthetics!

Wednesday, 9 April 2014 – Synthetic Aesthetics

Friday 25 April, 18.30-22.00
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Free event 

Can we design life itself? The emerging field of synthetic biology crosses the boundary between science and design to manipulate the stuff of life. These new designers see life as a programmable material, creating new organisms with radical applications from materials to machines. April's Friday Late turns London's V&A Museum into a living laboratory, bringing science and design together for one night of events, workshops and installations, each exploring our biological future. 

The evening will feature the book launch of 'Synthetic Aesthetics: Investigating Synthetic Biology's Designs on Nature', by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Jane Calvert, Pablo Schyfter, Alistair Elfick and Drew Endy, published by The MIT Press. 

V&A website.

"Biogenic Timestamp" at Ars Electronica, Austria and Japan

Wednesday, 9 April 2014 – Synthetic Aesthetics

Hideo Iwasaki's and Oron Catts' Biogenic Timestamp project is on show until 2015 at Projekt Genesis in the Ars Electronica Center, Linz, Austria. It was also exhibited at InterCommunication Center, Tokyo, Japan, December 25 2013–March 2 2014.

Oron and Hideo explain: "When we use synthetic biology to perform complex changes to nature, we usually forget that we rely on fragile, human-made computer systems to do so. “Biogenic Timestamp” clearly illustrates that bacteria are capable of internalizing our technological creations and modifying them as they please. In the case study carried out by this project, electronic components are subjected to genetically modified bluegreen algae. These cyano-bacteria are among the most primitive forms of life; due to their ability to perform photosynthesis, they depend on light energy. In symbolic fashion, the tiny creatures ingest elements like silicon, gold and iron from the computer hardware, reorder them as they grow, and thereby completely disorganize the linear logic of the human-made electronic circuits. At the same time, they span an arc between a geological understanding of time and a biological one."



Photo: Ars Electronica.

"Selfmade" human cheese at Grow Your Own… Life After Nature

Wednesday, 9 April 2014 – Synthetic Aesthetics

Christina Agapakis and Sissel Tolaas' "Selfmade" project, featuring a selection of human cheeses, was exhibited at the Grow Your Own... Life After Nature at the Science Gallery, Dublin, Ireland (October 25 2013 to January 19 2014). The public were invited to open fridges containing the cheeses, and smell the individual microbial portraits for themselves. The cheeses came from the body bacteria of a diverse group, including food writer Michael Pollan, curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, cheese scientist Ben Dutton and artist Olafur Eliasson. The project was widely discussed in the international media. 

Christina and Sissel say: "We not only live in a biological world surrounded by rich communities of microorganisms, but in a cultural world that emphasises total antisepsis. The intersection of our interests in smell and microbial communities led us to focus on cheese as a ‘model organism’. Many of the stinkiest cheeses are hosts to species of bacteria closely related to the bacteria responsible for the characteristic smells of human armpits or feet. Can knowledge and tolerance of bacterial cultures in our food improve tolerance of the bacteria on our bodies? How do humans cultivate and value bacterial cultures on cheeses and fermented foods? How will synthetic biology change with a better understanding of how species of bacteria work together in nature as opposed to the pure cultures of the lab?"



Photo: Science Gallery.

"Packaging That Creates Its Contents" in Paris

Wednesday, 9 April 2014 – Synthetic Aesthetics


"Packaging that Creates its Contents" by Synthetic Aesthetics residents Will Carey, Adam Reineck, Reid Williams, and Wendell Lim was exhibited at En Vie/ Alive, curated by Carole Collet at Espace Fondation EDF, Paris, France, April 26 2013 – September 1 2013

"We imagine an extreme probiotic drink that relies on bacteria to morph into a physical cup when exposed to a specific light wavelength. During shipping and storage, these light-moulded cups  are ‘alive’ but remain dormant until water is poured inside, creating an effervescent, healthy drink. After several uses, the cup’s walls begin to degrade and it can be composted.

‘Packaging That Creates Its Contents’ helps people think about what the world would be like if packaging never created waste. Hotwiring what scientists are already doing with bacteria – responding to light, in this case – completely changes the concept of packaging. By imagining biodegradable, lightweight containers built from living materials that reanimate when filled with liquid, the project aims to provoke further design exploration of the potential of synthetic biology for industrial design and packaging applications.

“Intriguingly, objects made from living organisms could have unique properties that go beyond their mode of manufacture,” writes Christopher Mims for Fast Company. “In this concept, the bacteria used to grow the cup is also an aid to digestion. Once filled with plain water, the cup starts to produce probiotics. Such a cup would challenge one of the primary tenets of consumer goods; namely, that packaging is secondary to the product being sold.”

The intersection of design and science allows both fields to explore new questions. Developing a closer relationship with biology allows designers to begin to imagine a future with no waste. Understanding how to program living organisms points to a new frontier of coding – beyond software, into materiality. This project has been developed with the support of IDEO San Francisco."

Photo: Nicolas Zurcher, Render: IDEO. 

"Biocomputation" in Paris and Rotterdam

Wednesday, 9 April 2014 – Synthetic Aesthetics


"Biocomputation" by David Benjamin and Fernan Federici has recently been exhibited at En Vie/ Alive: New Design Frontiers at the Espace Fondation EDF, Paris, France, April 26 2013–September 1 2013. It was also shown at at Biodesign at the Netherlands Architecture Institute, Rotterdam, September 27 2013–January 26 2014, curated by William Myers. 

"In the growing discipline of synthetic biology, living systems are engineered to help solve problems across various industries. For this project, David Benjamin and his firm The Living are designing new composite building materials through a pioneering intersection of synthetic biology, architecture, and computation. These new composite materials offer insight into the near future when synthetic biology may help us design and manufacture the built environment with higher performance and lower environmental impact than traditional methods.

In this project, bacteria become factories for manufacturing building materials through a combination of three of their natural features. Bacteria can produce flexible, fabric-like substance as well as rigid, brick-like substance. Bacteria can also generate complex, self-organised patterns. In an experiment combining these features, two different types of genetically modified bacteria are mixed in a large petri dish with nutrients, and through their growth and interaction they generate flat sheets of material with distinct rigid and flexible regions.

This process, which is still being refined in the lab, is then modelled in a software workflow. Thousands of design options are explored by varying the properties of the bacteria, which translates into different patterns in the sheets. The software workflow is built through Autodesk Maya and custom plug-ins, and it uses techniques of simulation and optimisation common in aerospace and architectural design.

The resulting composite sheets have novel properties of structure and transparency, and they can be applied to new high-performance envelopes in buildings, boats and aeroplanes. In the experiment documented in this exhibit, new composite sheets are designed for potential use in an aeroplane envelope. In the future, these processes of bio-computation and bio-fabrication will offer many more possibilities for design."

The Synthetic Aesthetics book published

Sunday, 2 March 2014 – Synthetic Aesthetics

We're thrilled to announce that the Synthetic Aesthetics book has been published by The MIT Press, and is now available in the US. Written by the project team and with contributions from all the Synthetic Aesthetics residents, the book explores synthetic biology and the design of living systems, using design and art as a way to open up the discussion. You can purchase the book from The MIT Press, Amazon or preorder from Amazon UK (available in other territories from April). 


About the book

Synthetic biology manipulates the stuff of life. For synthetic biologists, living matter is programmable material. In search of carbon-neutral fuels, sustainable manufacturing techniques, and innovative drugs, these researchers aim to redesign existing organisms and even construct completely novel biological entities. Some synthetic biologists see themselves as designers, inventing new products and applications. But if biology is viewed as a malleable, engineerable, designable medium, what is the role of design and how will its values apply?

In this book, synthetic biologists, artists, designers, and social scientists investigate synthetic biology and design. After chapters that introduce the science and set the terms of the discussion, the book follows six boundary-crossing collaborations between artists and designers and synthetic biologists from around the world, helping us understand what it might mean to ‘design nature.’ These collaborations have resulted in biological computers that calculate form; speculative packaging that builds its own contents; algae that feeds on circuit boards; and a sampling of human cheeses. They raise intriguing questions about the scientific process, the delegation of creativity, our relationship to designed matter, and, the importance of critical engagement. Should these projects be considered art, design, synthetic biology, or something else altogether?

Synthetic biology is driven by its potential; some of these projects are fictions, beyond the current capabilities of the technology. Yet even as fictions, they help illuminate, question, and even shape the future of the field.


“It is essential that designers and artists engage with the emerging field of synthetic biology, but how is not always clear. Synthetic Aesthetics provides a fascinating interdisciplinary discussion of the key issues and ideas driving developments in this field, but more importantly for artists and designers, it offers a range of ways designers and artists from very different points on the creative spectrum can critically engage with this exciting field.”
Anthony Dunne, Head of the Design Interactions Programme, Royal College of Art

Synthetic Aesthetics takes a timely view of the interface between science and design from a number of angles. The charismatic introduction sets the stage for the different in-depth views that follow. This book is a good, accessible read for all and as such will also make a great addition to education in biology, engineering, design, and humanities.”
Pamela Silver, Professor of Systems Biology, Harvard Medical School and Harvard University Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering

“Just as post-war designers Ray and Charles Eames showed us how molded plywood techniques for building airplane wings could result in unexpected, and now timeless, pieces of furniture, artists and designers like Daisy Ginsberg are showing us how bacteria and other biological building blocks may give us entree to an entirely new species of experiences.”
John Maeda, Design Partner, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers

Synthetic Aesthetics Book

Monday, 10 June 2013 – Synthetic Aesthetics
"Synthetic Aesthetics: investigating synthetic biology's designs on nature" will be published by MIT Press in 2014. More information soon!

Seeking aesthetic experience in the practice of science

Tuesday, 18 December 2012 – Synthetic Aesthetics

What is aesthetics in chemical biology? Can we get away from the idea of "beautiful science," and find a more functional aesthetic in the scientific process? I guest edited the December special issue of Current Opinion in Chemical Biology on this theme; the journal includes contributions from residents Christina Agapakis, Sissel Tolaas and Sheref Mansy.

 "Working in science, I know that apparently objective, rational scientists readily ...describe beautiful theories or attractive visualisations of their subjects of study, or discuss neatly symmetrical molecules that are ‘aesthetically pleasing’. Despite scientists happily applying such subjective descriptions to the products of their rational enquiries, the rupture that C.P. Snow identified in his ‘Two Cultures’ lecture in 1959 is still lamented by those either side of the divide, nostalgic for earlier times when science and humanities –  and hence aesthetics –  were more closely aligned. Society accepts this long established cultural division as intractable, even irresolvable, blaming it on factors such as the education system. Instead, we praise the objectivity of contemporary science, and its steady embrace of thought and analysis in contrast to experience and emotion, attitudes better suited to the artist. But such sweeping generalisation of the contrasting traits of science and the arts denies the definition of aesthetics as a cognitive mode of experience, and hence the reality that an intrinsic aesthetic experience exists in the everyday practice of science. And in disregarding this, one could argue that it perpetuates the very idea of ‘Two Cultures’: solidifying the concept of a repeatable, objective world of science where subjective, personal aesthetic experience has no place."


"Aesthetics is not just about the way things look, but about our experience of them too. Alfred Tauber, philosopher and biochemist by training, describes three levels of aesthetic experience in both art and science: sensual, emotional/imaginative and analytical [4 ]. Good science is recognised as being both experiential and philosophical: in that, I would argue that it is certainly an aesthetic pursuit. Aesthetics need not just be the special world of the visual arts, but our experience of the everyday. An emerging field of aesthetic theory, called everyday or functional aesthetics looks at just this [5,6 ]. By broadening our understanding of aesthetics in science beyond the focus on beauty, we may find useful and thought provoking new experimental paths within science. The reviewers in this issue aim to do this: each examines aesthetic experience through the different senses in the practice of science. Collectively, this approach may help not only expand our understanding of aesthetics within science, but could also benefit its practice, suggesting new techniques and areas of study."

The issue contains reviews on non-visual aspects of science, from smell, to design, to touch, to synaesthetic experience in the practice of science. 

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg Editorial overview: Sensation: in search of aesthetic experience in chemical biology
Kenneth S Suslick Synesthesia in science and technology: more than making the unseen visible
Emily Candela Assembling an aesthetic
Christina M Agapakis and Sissel Tolaas Smelling in multiple dimensions
Glenn Parsons The aesthetics of chemical biology
Steven A Benner Aesthetics in synthesis and synthetic biology
Michele Forlin, Roberta Lentini and Sheref S Mansy Cellular imitations

Conversations about Synthetic Biology

Wednesday, 19 September 2012 – Synthetic Aesthetics

Intel: The Tomorrow Project. Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Christina Agapakis and Patrick Boyle in conversation with Brian David Johnson over (4 episodes), June 2012

Women In Science

Wednesday, 19 September 2012 – Synthetic Aesthetics

Christina Agapakis has won a prestigious 2012 L’Oréal USA Fellowship for Women in Science. Christina plans to continue her work investigating symbioisis in synthetic lifeforms with this post-doctoral award. 

Synthetic Aesthetics... an update

Wednesday, 19 September 2012 – Synthetic Aesthetics

We haven't posted anything on the site for a while. We're working on an exciting publication for the project (more soon on that), which has been keeping us all busy. Our research continues into what it means to design nature and our residents are independently continuing their collaborations in their own ways, which we are thrilled about. We're excited that the extremely experimental work that we all undertook through Synthetic Aesthetics is beginning to receive recognition in our own disciplines (hence the belated rash of posts, some of them directly celebrating the projects on Synthetic Aesthetics, others recogising our resident's more day-to-day endeavours, but which we like to think might be connected!). And this week, I received the London Design Medal 2012 for Emerging Talent. The work that we have all been doing together as Synthetic Aesthetics, a diverse group from many disciplines, in labs and studios all around the world, is without a doubt key to this. It is a collaborative effort!  

Living Amongst Living Things receives a Notable mention from Core77

Wednesday, 19 September 2012 – Synthetic Aesthetics

Will Carey and Adam Reineck were recognised for their collaboration with Wendell Lim and Reid Williams at UCSF in the Core77 2012 Design Awards, receiving a notable mention in the speculative category. Jury members described the work as follows:

This is a most interesting collaboration between designers and scientists to create biodesigned projects. – Bernardo Fernandez

This concept is very provocative, as always happens with science. You have to think where to stop before making life-changing discoveries. This concept opens up a new field of study that is really amazing. I really hope the authors are aware of all the risk factors. – Irina Kharseeva

This is IDEO, so this is classy and deft. It’s “design fiction” that would impress people in the boardroom. – Bruce Sterling

UdK Award for Sissel Tolaas and Christina Agapakis

Wednesday, 19 September 2012 – Synthetic Aesthetics

Synthetic Aesthetics Residents Christina Agapakis and Sissel Tolaas won an award from UdK, the Universität der Künste, Berlin for their art and science collaboration on human body cheese. Congratulations to our residents for their continuing collaboration!

Sheref Mansy - TED Fellow

Wednesday, 19 September 2012 – Synthetic Aesthetics

Congratulations to Synthetic Aesthetics Resident Sheref Mansy for becoming a TED Fellow in the TEDGlobal 2012 class! Sheref spoke at TEDGlobal Fellows session about his work: 

Synthetic biology can do many amazing things – provide fuel, feed us, but the general public fears genetically modified life. Typically you start with life and modify its behaviour by modifying its genetic content. So he is trying to build cells with nonliving components – constructing lifelike technologies using artificial structures that mimic life, intentionally incorporating features that are useful but don’t replicate or evolve, instead living for a finite period and die. Communication is key – artificial cells can already detect the presence of natural cells, but the goal is to get artificial cells to be able to emit a chemical signal in response, which will close the loop.


Wired Smart List 2012: 50 people who will change the world

Friday, 10 February 2012 – Synthetic Aesthetics

Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO selects Wendell Lim, synthetic biologist

Wendell runs a lab at the University of California, San Francisco, focusing on synthetic biology, which in my opinion is likely to be the next technology wave after the social internet. What makes Wendell especially interesting is that, alongside his laboratory science, he is studying how design might impact his work and how his work impacts design. He has even had a team of industrial designers working with him in the lab on some experiments. He's going to be an important voice in this new science.



Living and life-like machines

Friday, 18 November 2011 – Synthetic Aesthetics

Artist Sascha Pohflepp speaks about his research in synthetic biology as part of his ongoing collaboration with Sheref Mansy for Synthetic Aesthetics. Filmed at the Becoming Transnatural symposium and exhibition, (Amsterdam, March 2011), he argues that "Life-like machines have identity," as he opens up discussion about future machines subject to evolutionary pressures.

Sheref Mansy then skyped in from his lab in Trento:

A culture of cheese - Sissel Tolaas at the World Science Festival

Friday, 18 November 2011 – Synthetic Aesthetics

Sissel Tolaas was a speaker at the World Science Festival in New York in June, discussing her Synthetic Aesthetics collaboration with Christina Agapakis. Sissel says, "Smell is one of those senses where context can play a huge role. A fine cheese and a dirty foot share the same molecular smells, yet one is a delicacy and other is repulsive."

For their BO_BAD_CHE project, Christina and Sissel collected bacteria from people and used it to make 'human' cheese. "We decided to focus on cheese as a metaphor for the human organism", explains Sissel. These personalised dairy products challenge the old adage of "we are what we eat", and the boundary between what we make and who we are. Their collaboration continues: most recently, at the SB5.0 conference at Stanford in June they ran a live cheese-making session, building a library of cheeses made from bacterial cultures swabbed from the global synthetic biology community. 


Testing bacterial composites for synbio architecture

Friday, 18 November 2011 – Synthetic Aesthetics

Video by Fernan Federici & David Benjamin, StudioX, New York (GSAPP, Columbia University) as part of their ongoing collaboration.

Xylem Cell

Friday, 18 November 2011 – Synthetic Aesthetics

Growing plants engineered for their field

Friday, 18 November 2011 – Synthetic Aesthetics


Read more about the ongoing work of Will Carey and Adam Reineck from IDEO and Reid Williams from the Lim Lab at UCSF in this FastCompany article here.

Training Bacteria to Grow Consumer Goods

Friday, 18 November 2011 – Synthetic Aesthetics

Read the article here.

Synthetic Aesthetics at PopTech!

Friday, 18 November 2011 – Synthetic Aesthetics

Design Fellow Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg gave a talk on "The Changing Nature of Things" at the Poptech! conference in October 2011, calling for a new way to think about design in a biotechnology revolution. Video here.

Residents' Workshop @SB5.0

Thursday, 16 June 2011 – Synthetic Aesthetics

"Build Life to Understand It" argue Lim and Elowitz

Thursday, 7 April 2011 – Synthetic Aesthetics

Biologists and engineers should work together: synthetic biology reveals how organisms develop and function, argue Michael Elowitz and Wendell A. Lim in Nature 468, December 2010

"Although traditional disciplinary boundaries are dissolving, the cultural differences between scientists and engineers remain strong. For biologists, genetic modification is a tool to understand natural systems, not an end in itself. Thus, making biological systems 'engineerable' — a goal of engineers in the field of synthetic biology — can seem pointless. Many biologists wonder why engineers fail to appreciate the intricate, beautiful and sophisticated designs that occur naturally. Engineers are often equally perplexed by biologists. Why are they so obsessed about the details of one particular system? Why don't they appreciate the value of replacing a complex and idiosyncratic system with a simpler, more modular and more predictable alternative? These misunderstandings can make for fascinating conversations, but they can also prevent mutually beneficial synergies."

Christina Agapakis and BoingBoing's Maggie Koerth-Baker

Thursday, 7 April 2011 – Synthetic Aesthetics

Synthetic Aesthetics' resident and Harvard synthetic biologist Christina Agapakis in conversation with Maggie Koerth-Baker, discussing synthetic biology, design, cheese and women in science and blogging. Watch the discussion here!

Fernan Federici and Jim Haseloff: ‘April is the Cruellest Month ...’ 09 April - 25 June 2011

Wednesday, 6 April 2011 – Synthetic Aesthetics



A new exhibition, ‘April is the Cruellest Month ...’ inspired by T.S. Eliot's poem The Wasteland, brings together artists and scientists at ArtCell Gallery, Cambridge, UK. Combining cutting edge scientific cellular imaging and artistic vision, this show is an exploration and celebration of ‘dull roots’ with new potential.

From the exhibition website:

Jim Haseloff and Fernan Federici's amazing prints of fluorescent protein labelled transgenic plants, stained whole-mounts and 3D reconstructions of plant cell anatomy, offer an other-worldly beauty to contemporary microscopic cellular plant examination. Various staining techniques are used to label DNA, proteins, carbohydrates etc., and the digital controls of a confocal microscope allow for the clean separation of different fluorescent emission signals and the balancing of signal levels in different channels, leading to the production of images with intense clarity and colour.

Based in the Department of Plant Sciences at Cambridge University, the Haseloff Laboratory is pioneering synthetic biology, and has constructed a series of tools for controlling gene misexpression, and marking specific cells in growing plants. The lab is building a new generation of genetic circuits that incorporate intercellular communication, and could be used to generate self-organised behaviour at the cellular scale. These kind of circuits and cell-cell interactions play a key role in plant development and morphogenesis, and synthetic circuits will allow bold new approaches to reprogramming plant systems.

Synthetic Biology is an emerging field that employs engineering principles for constructing genetic systems. The approach is based on the use of well-characterised and reusable components, and numerical models for the design of biological circuits.


Synthesis Workshop, July 2011

Monday, 7 March 2011 – Synthetic Aesthetics

Still from Urpflanze, Melanie Jackson


The Arts Catalyst, UCL and Synthetic Aesthetics in partnership with SymbioticA present a 6-day intensive exchange laboratory for artists, designers, synthetic biologists, engineers and others.  

Download the Call for Participants for further details and how to apply.

Exchange Laboratory Dates: Monday 4 - Saturday 9 July 2011
The laboratory will take place at University College London.

Deadline for Proposals to participate: 10:00 am, Monday 4 April 2011

Synthetic Biology is an emerging area of research, which applies engineering principles to biology. It promises new drugs and materials for medical applications, new routes to make biofuels and chemicals and enable the building of novel genomes and cells. It could have profound implications for the way we perceive and use living things.

Synthesis will be an intensive exchange laboratory for artists, designers, synthetic biologists, engineers, and others from relevant disciplines, collaboratively exploring synthetic biology's ideas and techniques and its social and cultural implications. The exchange laboratory will be devised and led by scientists including Prof John Ward (UCL) in collaboration with artist/designers Oron Catts (SymbioticA UWA/Royal College of Art) and Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg (Synthetic Aesthetics). The exchange process is intended to explore and challenge the notions of synthetic biology, the level of control and manipulation of living systems, the application of engineering logic, and the social and cultural dimensions of synthetic biology; with the hope to inspire proposals for future projects from all participants.

Evening seminars and events during the week will broaden the exchange with the public.

Synthesis is organised by The Arts Catalyst with UCL and Synthetic Aesthetics. It is funded by a Wellcome Trust Arts Award, with support from The Arts Catalyst (Arts Council England funded), the SynBion network (funded by BBSRC and EPSRC), SymbioticA (The University of Western Australia) and Synthetic Aesthetics (funded by EPSRC and the National Science Foundation).

Further labs are intended in Edinburgh,UK, Stanford University, US, and Perth, Australia.


Saturday, 18 December 2010 – Synthetic Aesthetics

Saturday, 18 December 2010 – Synthetic Aesthetics

IDEO brainstorm

Saturday, 18 December 2010 – Synthetic Aesthetics

Mariana and Chris exploring data systems in synthetic biology at CCRMA, Stanford.

Listening to the Brain

Saturday, 18 December 2010 – Synthetic Aesthetics

Listening to the sonification of brain data from a patient with epilepsy.
CCRMA Listening Room at Stanford University.

Saturday, 18 December 2010 – Synthetic Aesthetics

Hi-throughput at the Anderson Lab

Synthesis Workshop 2011

Tuesday, 14 December 2010 – Synthetic Aesthetics

A hands-on synbio workshop in 2011

Synthesis is an intensive laboratory-based exchange between artists, synthetic biologists and engineers, collaboratively exploring synthetic biology's ideas and techniques and its social and cultural implications.

Artist Melanie Jackson will make a film from the exchange, incorporating interviews with participants and film of the practice of synthetic biology, exploring the thresholds of this new science. Forums and discussion events will broaden the exchange with the public.

The project has been initiated by The Arts Catalyst with Prof John Ward and Dr Jane Gregory from UCL, part of the BBSRC’s SynBion network, Synthetic Aesthetics' resident Oron Catts, Director of SymbioticA, University of Western Australia, and Synthetic Aesthetics.

The first exchange lab will take place in London in 2011, with further labs intended in the future.

This intiative is funded by a Wellcome Trust Arts Award, with support from UCL and Synthetic Aesthetics.

More details soon!

Synthetic Aesthetics iGEM 2010 Design Workshop: How Would You Design Nature?

Sunday, 7 November 2010 – Synthetic Aesthetics

Synthetic Aesthetics iGEM 2010 Design Workshop: How Would You Design Nature? curated by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg

Friday, 5 November 2010 – Synthetic Aesthetics

Exploring Collaborations between Synthetic Biology, Art & Design at iGEM

7PM - 8PM, Saturday 6 November 2010
Room 32-155, Stata Center, iGEM Jamboree, MIT

Design is part of the process of synthetic biology. iGEM teams are generating some of the most creative and adventurous design ideas in the field. Now designers are now joining engineering teams, teams of artists/designers are entering iGEM – like ArtScience Bangalore – and engineers are joining art teams. We want to explore what works and hasn’t, how such collaborations can develop in the future, and how Synthetic Aesthetics can contribute. We want to share what we’re learning, talk about our ideas, and find out how iGEM teams are innovating.

How does your project think about design? Molecular design, speculative design, human practices as design? Present a 5 minute pitch and be part of the discussion about what it means to design with nature.
Ask a member of our team at the Jamboree to find out more and schedule a pitch slot.


Programme (5 min talks, 1 hour session total)

1. Synthetic Aesthetics Introduction
2. E.chromi 2009, James King & Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg
3.  ArtScienceBangalore 2009 & 2010
4. WeimarHeidelbergArts 2010
5. Harvard 2010
6. Imperial 2010
7. Fernan Federici (Cambridge U, Plant Sciences) & David Benjamin (Columbia U, Architecture)
8. Discussion - Design in Synthetic Biology at IGEM

Synthetic Aesthetics Seminar: Form Follow Evolution, Function or Fashion?

Wednesday, 3 November 2010 – Synthetic Aesthetics

Exploring Collaborations between Synthetic Biology, Art & Design 

Organized by 
Orkan Telhan, MIT Department of Architecture   
Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Design Fellow, Synthetic Aesthetics, Stanford & Edinburgh 
4pm ‐ 7pm, Friday, 5 November 2010 
E14‐633 MIT Media Lab  
How would you design nature?  
What does it mean to design with nature?  
How should we design with nature?  
Synthetic Biology is a new approach to engineering biology. By applying engineering principles to the 
complexity of living systems, scientists and engineers are making biology a new material for design. 
Synthetic Aesthetics is an ongoing interdisciplinary research project exploring what this kind of design 
means, looks like, and intimates. By bringing scientists, engineers, artists and designers together in 
collaborative projects, we aim to explore shared territory in process, interaction, and directions for future 
work with biological design.  
As iGEM 2010 (the International Genetic Engineered Machines competition) begins at MIT, this seminar 
and discussion will delve into synthetic biology, its relationship to design and art, and the diverse 
collaborations underway within Synthetic Aesthetics. Bioengineer and BIOFAB founder Drew Endy will 
introduce synthetic biology, Synthetic Aesthetics residents from science, design and art backgrounds will 
discuss their developing collaborations, social scientists and guest speakers will describe their own 
engagements with the field, from science, design, art to citizen science. 
The seminar will focus on what roles designers and artists can play in this nascent field of science and 
engineering, how synthetic biology can impact art and design, and what these collaborations can tell us 
about the role of biotechnology in social life. What can be learned by designers from scientists, and what 
can design and art offer to science? What are these emerging collaborative works? What can this shared 
territory reveal about science and design?  

Speakers Include

Drew Endy Bioengineer, Stanford University
Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg Artist/Designer, UK
Orkan Telhan MIT Architecture
Pablo Schyfter Philosopher Of Technology, Stanford University
Jane Calvert Sociologist Of Science, Edinburgh University
Fernan Federici Plant Scientist, Cambridge University
David Benjamin Architect, Columbia University, NYC
Sissel Tolaas Smell Artist, Germany
Christina Agapakis Biologist, Harvard Medical School
Sascha Pohflepp, Artist/designer, Germany (by skype)
Sheref Mansy
Protocell scientist, University of Trento, Italy (by skype)
Will Carey
Designer, IDEO Inc., Palo Alto (by Skype)
Mac Cowell
DIYbio, Boston
Yashas Shetty Artist, ArtScience Bangalore, India
Peter Yeadon Designer, RISD/Decker Yeadon, NYC (by skype)
Sergio Araya Researcher, Computation, MIT Architecture

Synthetic Aesthetics Salon: Future natures in a culture of synthetic biology

Wednesday, 3 November 2010 – Synthetic Aesthetics


Thursday October 28, 8 pm, with Sascha Pohflepp, Sheref Mansy, Lucy McRae and Koert van Mensvoort. 

  Science and technology are moving closer to adding living organisms to our cultural toolkit. Microbes are already making insulin and soon they may produce the world's fuel supply. Their potential is limited only by our imagination.


The emerging field of synthetic biology aims to transform biology as we know it into a discipline of engineering. The top-down BioBricks approach prefers to hack existing organisms. The more research-oriented field of so-called protocells aims to create minimal living machines and may on the way discover the nature of life itself. What both technosciences share is that, if successful, they will profoundly shift or even erase our distinction between nature and culture. After the first truly artificial life form has been created and employed, everything can potentially become technology.

If their main subject is increasingly an object that is made, biologists are becoming creative. What will be the role of the arts in a future where life is a thing to be designed? Will scientists become the poets of the time, or do art, design and architecture need to play a role in this development? Can these possibilities be explored collaboratively?

This Salon will be exploring why our notions of nature and technology may need to change and look closer at work in both art and science. From the body as architecture to the soft systems of the future and scientific research focussing on artificial cells as life-like machines.

Sheref Mansy

Sheref Mansy obtained his bachelor's and doctoral degrees from Ohio State University. After a postdoctoral position in the laboratory of Jack W. Szostak at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, Sheref was awarded a career development award from the Giovanni Armenise-Harvard foundation. He joined the University of Trento as an Assistant Professor of biochemistry in 2009. His research interests are in the development of in vitro reconstructions of life-like systems...

Lucy McRae

Lucy McRae is an Australian artist straddling the worlds of fashion, technology and the body. As a body Architect she invents and builds structures on the skin that re-shape the human silhouette. Trained as a classical ballerina and architect her work inherently fascinates with the human body.
Her provocative and often grotesquely beautiful imagery suggests a new breed; a future human archetype existing in an alternate world

Koert van Mensvoort

Despite the global awareness of our fragile relation with nature and the countless projects initiated to restore the balance, almost no one has asked the question: What is our concept of nature? And how is our relation with nature changing? Koert van Meensvoort is an artist, scientist, designer, inventor, philosopher, doctor and runs the blog

Sascha Pohflepp

Sascha Pohflepp is an artist, designer and writer. He is interested in past and future technologies, notions of art, business and idealism, what they mean to us and how they inform which worlds come true and which worlds are discarded. He holds a degree in Media Art from the Universität der Künste Berlin and an MA from Design Interactions at the Royal College of Art in London. .


Wednesday, 3 November 2010 – Synthetic Aesthetics

Wednesday, 3 November 2010 – Synthetic Aesthetics

Friday, 8 October 2010 – Synthetic Aesthetics


At the Mansy Lab, Amy Spencer is developing protocolls with micro-fluidics to manufacture vesicles, using oils and water. Fluorescent dye is added to help with visualisation under the microscope.

Friday, 8 October 2010 – Synthetic Aesthetics
“Evolution has to become an experimental science, which must first be controlled and studied, then conducted and finally shaped to the use of man." Hugo de Vries, 1904

Thursday, 2 September 2010 – Synthetic Aesthetics

Hideo Iwasaki instructs Oron Catts in cyanobacteria protocols.

Measuring and manipulating circadian rhythm in cyanobacteria

Wednesday, 1 September 2010 – Synthetic Aesthetics


Wednesday, 1 September 2010 – Synthetic Aesthetics

Time and Place

Tuesday, 31 August 2010 – Synthetic Aesthetics

Cyanobacteria expert, Hideo Iwasaki of Waseda University, Tokyo, and biological artist Oron Catts in Hideo's lab, discussing cyanobacteria and circadian rhythm.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010 – Synthetic Aesthetics
"What are the design challenges facing synthetic biology? Can design and art help with these challenges? What do artists and designers want to learn from interacting with synthetic biology?" Drew Endy

In the Haseloff Lab

Tuesday, 17 August 2010 – Synthetic Aesthetics

Tuesday, 17 August 2010 – Synthetic Aesthetics

Travelling between Scale and Metaphor

Tuesday, 17 August 2010 – Synthetic Aesthetics

Plant scientist Fernan Federici and architect David Benjamin began their exchange last week at the Haseloff Laboratory at Cambridge University. During their weeks embedded in Cambridge University-based synthetic biology laboratory, Fernan and David are discussing and comparing shared ideas of scale, metaphor, material and space, drawing on their seemingly separate expertise in synthetic biology and architecture.

Past Events

08 May 2014
What Design Can Do, Amsterdam

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg will be speaking about the Synthetic Aesthetics project at What Design Can Do in Amsterdam.

25 Apr 2014
V&A Friday Late

Can we design life itself? Celebrate the launch of Synthetic Aesthetics as artists, designers and scientists explore our biological future. Admission Free.

V&A Late information

13 Jan 2014
Jane Calvert at the National University of Singapore

'Interdisciplinary experimentation in synthetic biology: what can STS learn from art and design?' From Model Organisms to Synthetic Biology: STS Perspectives on Experimentation in the Life Sciences, National University of Singapore, Singapore.

11 Oct 2013
Portland Design Week

Drew Endy speaks on the subject of designing with biology at Portland Design Week.

09 Jul 2013
SB6.0 Conference, Panel on Design and Synthetic Biology: Connecting People and Technologies.

If synthetic biology is going to become a design-led discipline, how will these designs connect to people and the world? Watch the panel here.

25 Mar 2013
Synthetic Aesthetics, Super Mondays

Super Monday's - The North East's IT Community, session on synthetic biology, Newcastle. A talk from Jane Calvert.

26 Sep 2012
27 Sep 2012
Cambridge BioDesign Forum

Conference details here.  

10 Apr 2012
'Creating with Creation' at the Edinburgh International Science Festival

Jane Calvert speaks about 'Synthetic Aesthetics, Creating with Creation' at the National Museum of Scotland for the Edinburgh International Science Festival

09 Mar 2012
18 Mar 2012
Designing Living Things panel at SXSW 2012, Austin Texas

The panel features a new generation of leaders in biotechnology from industry, academia, art and design discussing the future of biology. With Christina Agapakis, Patrick Boyle, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Jason Kelly,Sri Kosuri. More info

09 Feb 2012
Manchester Interdisciplinary Biocentre Talk

Jane Calvert speaks about 'Synthetic Aesthetics: Synthetic biology, social science, art and design' at the University of Manchester. 

05 Dec 2011
06 Dec 2011
‘Synthetic Aesthetics: Bringing together synthetic biology, social science, art and design’

Jane Calvert speaks at the Synthetic Components Network Annual Conference, Bristol.

23 Nov 2011
The Changing Nature of Things at Textile Futures, Central St Martins

Talk by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg at the Futurising Forum, MA Textile Futures and MA Industrial Design.

03 Nov 2011
Retrofitting Life - the fantasy of bio-architecture at the University of Sydney

Oron Catts reviews how architects are trying to break through biomimetics, hoping to employ biological systems and processes for architectural ends. Link

02 Nov 2011
05 Nov 2011
Synthetic Aesthetics: Bringing together synthetic biology, science studies, art and design

Pablo Schyfter and Jane Calvert, Society for the Social Studies of Science, Cleveland, Ohio

01 Nov 2011
Engineering Biology
Christina Agapakis, Workshop with HackLab, University of Southern California Annenberg Innovation Lab
30 Oct 2011
Designer People: is technology making us less human?

Daisy Ginsberg on the debate panel at the Battle of Ideas, London, UK.  

28 Oct 2011
Drew Endy speaking at Body, Place & Memory Symposium, Stanford University

An interdisciplinary symposium to cross-fertilize ideas about the body, place and memory across performance studies and biological sciences.

27 Oct 2011
Talk by Alistair Elfick to Interdisciplinary Creative Practises MSc at Edinburgh College of Art
22 Oct 2011
PopTech! - The Changing Nature of Things

Talk by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg at Pop!Tech conference 2011, Camden, Maine. Video

22 Sep 2011
Synthetic biology, social science, art and design

Talk by Jane Calvert at the Copenhagen Business School, Denmark

11 Sep 2011
Guerilla Science at Bestival - Fernan Federici & Daisy Ginsberg
Synthetic biology may soon give us the power to redesign life. So what should we make? Join artist/designer Daisy and biologist Fernan to discover a project that invites artists and scientists to explore the coming bio-synthetic age.
01 Sep 2011
Designing Biologically: Synthetic Biology Devices in Environmental and Social Context

Presentation by Christina Agapakis at Synthetic Biology at the Interface of Science and Policy, University of Ottawa

22 Aug 2011
'Design, engineering and understanding in synthetic biology: sociological reflections'

Talk by Jane Calvert, 70th Harden Conference, University of Keele

11 Jul 2011
15 Jul 2011

Design Fellow Daisy Ginsberg speaking about Synthetic Aesthetics and Design Evolution at TEDglobal in Edinburgh, July 2011. 

04 Jul 2011
09 Jul 2011
Synthesis - Call for Participants Open

  The Arts Catalyst, UCL and Synthetic Aesthetics in partnership with SymbioticA present a 6-day intensive exchange laboratory for artists, designers, synthetic biologists, engineers and others. 

Download the...

15 Jun 2011
Synbio Slam - Christina Agapakis and Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg

Christina and Daisy speaking at the 'slam' at SB5.0 at Stanford University.

15 Jun 2011
Synthetic Aesthetics Residents Workshop at SB5.0
15 Jun 2011
17 Jun 2011
Synthetic Aesthetics: Cheese-making at Synthetic Biology 5.0 Conference

Sissel Tolaas and Christina Agapakis make cheese at the Fifth International Meeting on Synthetic Biology at Stanford University.

14 May 2011
Imagining, engineering, and evolving synthetic biologies

Lecture by Christina Agapakis at Bio:Fiction Film Festival, Vienna

13 May 2011
14 May 2011
Bio:Fiction Festival, Vienna

Synthetic Aesthetics will be presenting at the Bio:Fiction Festival in Vienna. More info...

02 May 2011
03 May 2011
'Synthetic biology, social science, art and design'

Talk by Jane Calvert at Models, Mechanisms and Algorithms: Symposium on Philosophical Perspectives on Synthetic Biology, University of Helsinki

06 Apr 2011
08 Apr 2011
New Forms of Collaboration? Synthetic biology, social science, art and design