The future potential of synthetic biology is usually discussed in terms of applications in fields like medicine, food science, and the environment. Genetically engineered life forms are being designed to make medicines cheaply, to target tumor cells, to make more nutritious food, or to make agricultural plants that are easier to grow with less of an environmental impact, to clean up pollution or produce sustainable biofuels. What if synthetic biology systems were instead designed for use in culture or entertainment?
David Benqué, a student in the Design Interactions program at the Royal College of Art in London, explores using hypothetical genetically engineered plants to create an acoustic sound garden. Bugs engineered to chew specially designed nuts in rhythm, whistling termites, lilly pad speakers, and popping seed pods populate this imaginary garden.
This Acoustic Botany is fascinating in terms of synthetic biology, rethinking and expanding the potential scope of genetic design, as well as having implications for how we think about natural ecologies of sound. As Nick writes over at Noise For Airports:
Primarily, this seems like a very interesting way to create an opposing form of acoustic ecology. Most work in acoustic ecology is about reducing human sonic influence in nature, and protecting “natural” soundscapes. Genetic engineering (or at least the implausibly specific and sonic version Benqué describes) offers another way to get into nature’s sounds and alter the soundscape.
Synthetic biology aims to replace a great deal of chemical manufacturing, medical technologies, and fuel production. Although it’s unlikely that synthetic biology will replace many entertainment technologies, it’s interesting to think about how synthetic biology may alter the way we interact with and enjoy our environment. It’s fun to design new living systems, maybe it will be fun to use them too.