Five years ago, designer Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg showed up at a student biotechnology competition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a silver suitcase, the sort you might see handcuffed to the mark in a spy movie. She had been called in by a team of undergrads from Cambridge University to help dream up applications for their multicolored bacteria. With platinum-blond hair and murder-red lipstick, she pounced on groups of students and biology professors, asking with a British lilt, “Would you like to see what’s inside my suitcase?”
She opened it to reveal two neat rows of human feces speckled with an oddly beautiful rainbow of colors. They weren’t real. They were products from Ginsberg’s vision of our biotech future. One day, as Ginsberg’s Scatalog illustrates, we might drink probiotic shakes of microbes that have been bioengineered to measure our gut health. Sort of like a home pregnancy strip that turns pink or blue, the millions of microbes would turn different colors as they passed through our intestines.
Some attendees thought that Scatalog would make a great medical diagnostic. Others would have preferred that she’d kept the suitcase closed. But the piece was provocative enough to tour 10 galleries worldwide, including the Museum of Modern Art, in New York City.
Today Ginsberg sits at the forefront of artists and designers who focus on emerging biotechnology—those working with microbes or DNA, as well as those exploring the social implications of bioengineering. Last year, MIT Press published Ginsberg’s book Synthetic Aesthetics, the result of an exchange she led that brought designers into labs and biologists into studios.
The 32-year-old discovered synthetic biology while working on a master’s in design at the Royal College of Art, in London, in 2007. (Her first degree was in architecture at Cambridge.) The then relatively new field of synthetic biology promised to make bioengineering faster, cheaper, and easier. But the prospect of making products from the stuff of life both enticed and worried her. In one of her early works, Growth Assembly, she conceived of a series of plants whose fruits can be combined to create a herbicide sprayer. “I was intrigued by my reticence,” she says. “Why, as I learn more and more, does it still feel unnatural?”
What the last century was for physics and material science (for example, nuclear fusion and the silicon transistor), the 21st century is shaping up to be for biotechnology (such as 3-D–printed organs and microbial chemical factories). Manipulating genes is becoming as feasible as manipulating bits and atoms. Scientists predict new biotech solutions to fuel, feed, and heal the world. But the possibilities and dangers of a future predicated on biotech have yet to be fully imagined. That’s where artists like Ginsberg come in. One day, perhaps, biotech companies will employ biodesigners, just as software companies hire designers such as Apple’s Jony Ive. For now, biodesigners inhabit a realm that exists somewhere between art, design, and science fiction.
One of Ginsberg’s pieces at Grow Your Own, a recent exhibit that she curated at Science Gallery Dublin, is a turquoise-headed slug that creeps along the forest floor and uses its slime trail to restore the pH balance of soils high in acids from pollution. The imaginary creature, part of a series called Designing for the Sixth Extinction, is a reaction to biotechnology’s role in environmental conservation.
Why “Sixth Extinction”? A number of scientists say that mankind has touched off a sixth mass extinction on par with five that have occurred over the last 450 million years—the most recent bringing the demise of the dinosaurs. They project that roughly a quarter of the world’s remaining species are headed toward extinction by 2050.
In 2013 the world’s top bioengineers and conservationists gathered at Cambridge to discuss how biotechnology could help halt the mass die-off. Ginsberg sat in the back of the room taking copious notes. The meeting was like an awkward first date, she says: “It seemed that the conservationists were looking backwards, asking how we can preserve biodiversity, while the bioengineers were looking forward, asking, What can we invent? What kind of biodiversity can we make?”
Ginsberg rushed back to her studio to imagine what she considered the logical conclusion of the partnership—a utopian future where bioengineers have saved nature. Only she complicates the vision.
She pictures lush forests virtually devoid of native animals. A bioengineered menagerie performs the ecological roles of species already lost. Her Autonomous Seed Disperser, for example, consists of a fuzzy magenta porcupine who wanders the forest catching seeds in its fur and spreads them on the ground, as a deer or a squirrel might do. Ginsberg presents her bioengineered species in the form of patent applications. These creatures are imagined as the intellectual property of biotech companies—analogous to Monsanto’s patented varietals of genetically modified corn.
Designing for the Sixth Extinction angered some scientists. “They could see the criticism inherent in it,” says Ginsberg. "I do not think that Daisy starts with the idea of criticizing the scientists' work, but rather criticizing the possible consequences in the future of our choices of today—not only scientists', everybody’s,” says Paola Antonelli, MoMA’s senior curator of architecture and design.
But bioengineers have largely embraced her as one of their own, inviting her to speak at synthetic-biology conferences. “We need more people to be imagining the future like Daisy,” says Pamela Silver, a professor of systems biology at Harvard Medical School. “The analogy to Star Trek is quite valid. There was something that was super popular and engaged a great number of young people who ultimately went on to build computers.”
Silver’s team has engineered a version of Ginsberg’s Scatalog—only in mice. While Ginsberg’s work didn’t directly impact the study, published last April, Silver says, “it was anticipatory.” Her team fed the mice bioengineered microbes in their drinking water. The microbes took their readings and came out at the bottom of the cages.
“Often, imagining things may make them more likely to occur,” Ginsberg says. “You can’t isolate the work from the world.”
For more information on Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, go to daisyginsberg.com.