The phylogeny of Prozac yogurt.
Christina Agapakis is a synthetic biologist and postdoctoral research fellow at UCLA who blogs about about biology, engineering, biological engineering, and biologically inspired engineering at Oscillator.
A few weeks ago, I saw a retweet that claimed “biohacking is easier than you think” with a link to a post on a blog accompanying a book called Massively Networked. The post included video of Tuur van Balen’s presentation at the NextNature power show a few months earlier. Van Balen is a designer whose work I’ve followed for a couple years now, and his most recent project imagines how synthetic biology might produce and deliver medicines in the future. He demonstrates—using homemade tools, equipment purchased on eBay, and online resources for finding and synthesizing DNA sequences—how someone could engineer a strain of bacteria to produce Prozac-laced yogurt. While he’s not actually making Prozac, his demonstration does show pretty accurately how someone could get DNA into a bacterium (without, of course, the frustrating months of troubleshooting that almost any experiment inevitably requires). I posted my own version of the story, writing that art projects like this can ask important questions about biological design.
The next day, my post was syndicated on the Huffington Post with a modified title that emphasized Prozac. Then a version appeared on Gizmodo, and it went on from there, spreading across the Internet. By the time its spread was complete, Van Balen, an artist interested in the implications of emerging biotechnologies, had mutated into a bioengineer at the forefront of synthetic biology research, creating Prozac yogurt in five days with just 860 base pairs of DNA. (If you were to actually make Prozac biologically, it would certainly take the action of many enzymes, each encoded by their own sequence of hundreds or thousands of base pairs).
How did an art piece, a design fiction that asks us to think critically about the possibilities opened up by synthetic biology, provoke an unskeptical acceptance of what bioengineering has made possible? Perhaps I should have been clearer in my post, or perhaps it’s the fault of sensationalized click-bait headlines. But I think it may be that we’ve become so accustomed to the hype surrounding the science of genes and DNA, so used to hearing about groundbreaking genetics, from the “gene for dry ear wax” to the “gene for Alzheimer’s” to the “gene for [common human behavior]” that we don’t think twice when we hear about mixing bacteria with the “gene for Prozac” to create antidepressant yogurt.
Erika Check Hayden is a journalist at Nature and educator in San Francisco. Her work has taken her to wild and beautiful places, but focuses most of the time on the inner terrain of the human body. You can find her online at erikacheck.com and twitter.com/Erika_Check.
This piece was originally published at The Last Word on Nothing.
A few years ago, Eric Klavins found himself starting at the ceiling of his room in the Athenaeum, a private lodging on the grounds of the California Institute of Technology, in the middle of the night. Unable to sleep, Klavins was instead pondering a question that had been posed to him earlier that day at a meeting.
Klavins, a robotics researcher, was funded by grants from the U.S. Air Force and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) on robot self-organization: making many simple robots work together to assemble themselves into a shape or structure. While working on the grants, Klavins would routinely be called into meetings to discuss his work with various defense officials, and it was at one of these meetings that a Defense Department researcher had posed his question. “He said, ‘Do you think you could figure out how something that has been broken up into lots of little pieces could be reassembled so we could figure out what it was?’” he recalls.
Klavins spent hours thinking about how one could actually do it. Then, he realized, he had no idea why one would even want to—and hadn’t asked that question at all during all the years he worked with Defense Department funding. He suddenly felt uncomfortable about that. “It bothered me that someone would spend their time studying how things get blown up and working to make things get blown up better,” Klavins says. Not long after, he decided to steer away from defense funding and towards applications in biology and medical research that are part of the realm of synthetic biology, the field of science that tries to turn biology into more of an engineering discipline.
But if Klavins thought that the change would help him escape the moral dilemmas that used to keep him up in the middle of the night, he was wrong. The U.S. Department of Defense has emerged as one of the major funders of synthetic biology; last fall, for instance, DARPA accepted proposals for a highly coveted set of grants in a new program, Living Foundries, that aims to “enable the rapid development of previously unattainable technologies and products, leveraging biology to solve challenges associated with production of new materials, novel capabilities, fuel and medicines.”