I’m a little late in posting about the recent work of Tuur Van Balen, a Belgian designer who uses art and design to explore the boundaries between people and technology. His work has explored synthetic biology and biotechnology for years, and I first was introduced to his work through news of his Urban Biogeography project. A recent focus in synthetic biology has been the design of simple biosensors, strains of bacteria or yeast that can sense an environmental pollutant and produce a measurable output such as color change. Thanks to the work of several very creative iGEM teams, the Registry of Standard Biological Parts contains DNA to turn microbes into sensors for estrogens, arsenic, antibiotics, and many other possible environmental pollutants. Van Balen started from these biosensors and designed a system that could measure the chemical and pharmaceutical contaminants of water around a city (hormone replacements, viagra, prozac), exploring how the drugs we use can impact our urban environment. He writes on the project:
This is part of the ‘My City = My Body’ project, a design research project on how the rise of bio-technologies might influence our future interaction with the city. In this part, I used this speculative scenario and fictional application of synthetic biology as a starting point for collaboration and confrontation with the department for Bioengineering at Imperial College in London.
His more recent work explores urban landscapes through a different organism–engineered pigeons. What if the gut bacteria of pigeons could be engineered with synthetic biology to make something useful, cleaning the city by pooping soap instead of making the city dirtier? Speaking of the connection between this project and Urban Biogeography, Van Balan tells We Make Money Not Art, “I like to think of a city as this vast and incredibly complex metabolism of which the human species is the tiniest of fractions: tiny yet intensely linked into an intricate organic embroidery beyond our understanding. It is in this hugely complex fabric that (future) biotechnologies will end up.”
Another project moves from the city into the home, exploring “Synthetic Biology’s potential to make healthcare more personal and participatory,” and how it “might turn us into our own doctors and pharmacists; constantly monitoring and tweaking our body.” His Synthetic Immune System project explores systems of designed yeasts that bring healthcare into the home, allowing individuals to measure and control their own health. Interestingly, this personalization of synthetic biology and medicine functions through outsourcing the body’s own immune system to technology–yeasts that can sense what the body needs and provide it through biosynthesis of drugs and vitamins.
I’m really interested in how these kinds of design projects explore the future of synthetic biology, bringing the micro-scale details of engineered genes and bacteria to a human scale. By exploring potential futures of synthetic biology we can work through many of the issues and tensions created by new technology and potentially shape a better and more useful engineering of biology.