What kind of biology is synthetic biology?

Massimiliano Simons (University of Leuven) reflects on his time chasing birds and biologists in the hilly wilds of Bristol and asks: what biology should we teach our kids?_55366293_crow-reflection-espanol

When I first arrived in mountainous Bristol from the Flemish flatlands I expected to be studying biologists, not climbing hills. Yet, for a significant part of the day I do the latter. Similar to how biologists used to travel the whole world to see the species they wanted to study, I now have to ride my bike around Bristol to study the biologists themselves. The reward for my travels is the chance to sit in on their meetings, project discussions, and presentations, dealing with new techniques in microscopy or theoretical models for minimal genomes. Synthetic biology is one of the new rising star disciplines in the life sciences, attracting scholars and funding. It presents us with a picture of biology as all about artificial laboratory settings, engineering, and computer models with the aim to design and build predictable and robust biological systems.

Philosophers do not yet have the luxury of constructing or simulating their own biologists in a lab, as synthetic biologists seem to have with their cells. With a minimal amount of funding, insufficient to produce laboratory-built biologists, I need my sturdy rented bike to pursue the biologists in the wilds of Bristol. Luckily, Bristol is quite friendly to cyclists, offering many parks and separated bike lines. And precisely in these parks I encountered a different biology to the one that I had journeyed to Bristol to study: one of ducks, magpies, swans, squirrels, sparrows and dogs (Bristolians love their dogs).

The creatures that above all got my attention in the parks were the murders of crows. Corvids have themselves in recent decades become the object of great scientific interest, because of the remarkable intelligence they show. It has been claimed that they have a theory of mind, can use tools to get food, and are able to solve complex puzzles.

What do these animals have to do with synthetic biology? Tossing peanuts to draw them closer, I began to wonder which biology are we talking about when we speak of synthetic biology?

That talking about ordinary animals in parks can be seen a digression from trying to understand synthetic biology is already telling. The seeming utter irrelevance of the crow for synthetic biology, and of synthetic biology for the crow, already demarcates what is understood as biology within such a new discipline. What precisely is the ‘contemporary’ within contemporary biology? In what way are crows not part of the setting of contemporary life sciences?

If we present synthetic biology as the cutting edge of the life sciences, with its focus on computer modelling, creating de novo proteins, protocells, and eventual industrial application do we end up with a quite one-sided view of biology: one that is focused on experiments, laboratories, instruments, synthesis, engineering and mathematical modelling at the expense of crows and the like. When non-specialists are confronted with biology nowadays, it is often this quite laboratory-focused picture they get, regularly combined with a fixation on unicellular organisms. The effects of this are, for instance, seen in a movement such as Do-It-Yourself (DIY) biology, which is slowly gaining influence. One of their main objectives is to democratize and open-up the life sciences for everyone. But what biology are they precisely opening-up? It is no accident that DIY biology came into being around the same time as synthetic biology, it can even be considered its brainchild.

One of the main activities of these DIY biology groups is education. In Ghent (Belgium), for example, I followed a DIY biology community called ReaGent, which has a separate NGO, called Ekoli, specifically focused on giving workshops to children, teachers and anyone who is interested. They organize workshops on extracting DNA or working with biomaterials in order to build stuff. They believe that DIY biologists can and should correct the textbook biology often being taught at secondary schools, by precisely opening up the laboratory side of biology, allowing children to tinker with biological materials. But with the result that it is precisely this laboratory-focused biology that will constitute the main image children will have of what the life sciences are all about.

But what can synthetic biology tell us about a crow? In a certain sense a lot. Crows have DNA too, they are also constituted of cells. But so far there is no ambition yet to synthesize a crow. The only attempts to synthesize multi-cellular organisms fall under the so-called ‘resurrection biology’, aiming to ‘de-extinct’ species such as the mammoth. But it is very telling that major criticisms have been raised about such projects, often pointing at a lack of attention to ecology: where would these new de-extinct species live? Would they thrive there? Would they not be in fact invasive species themselves? Even genetically modifying corvids through new techniques such as CRISPR is not on the table yet (though modifying malaria and Zika virus carrying mosquitos certainly is). One could only imagine what kind of ethical questions this raises.

So, in another sense it does not tell us a lot. All the knowledge about synthetic biology is rather useless in the light of the cunning and surprising behavior crows like to show, if only you give them a chance to show it. Synthetic biology tends to look at ‘minimal’ organisms, reduced either by synthesis or laboratory settings. It doesn’t look at the complex social behaviors of such organisms outside of the laboratories. Crows in parks, for instance, are daredevils and come way closer to humans than those you find in fields or on rooftops. But why is this? And what about the eternal struggle in Bristol between crows and seagulls? Who has written the chronicles of this civil war? Or why are there hardly any jackdaws in Bristol? Were they the first to fall or flee? To understand the role of these animals, their social role in our societies, one would need ecologists or ethologists, who rightly call themselves biologists as well.

My project is precisely about understanding these different ways of doing biology, and how synthetic biology constitutes only one particular type of it. One that is often quite intrigued by laboratories, engineering and mathematical models, but shies away from open fields and organisms seen by the human eye. In Europe at least, even GM crops need to be fenced off to ease the biologists and prevent contamination from plant and activist alike. One is not necessarily better than the other, but they are different and often have deviating ideas of what constitutes a good biological problem, a good biological proof and generally good biological practice.

Some would consider chasing crows around parks as a hobby, not a science. Others see poking at bacteria, locked up on Petri dishes, as a good way to ruin your eyes or produce chronic back pain, but not something that would produce any interesting insight in biological life. The point is not that one is right and the other wrong, but that there are differences. It is therefore always quite telling to see which interpretations of good biology are at work within a certain group of scientists, and what aspects therefore might be forgotten. Every morning, around 6 a.m., crows give part of the answer by waking up Bristol’s synthetic biologists with their kind’s song.

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