Biochymickal Arts (day three)

Posted Sept. 23, 2013 by Maja Kuzmanović

Improvisation and speculation

Both improvisation and speculation seemed to be the order of the day, especially when we began to move into the realms of bio-based plastics and electronics, synthetic biology and bio-punk. I hope that continued improvisation will bring us to fermentation and biohacking, hands-on crafts and the art of asking meaningful questions.

Closing loops with bio-materials

Michka and Brian talked about replacing toxic, polluting and rare materials with organic and compostable ones. Metal with melanin, petroleum with starch and casein, plants composted long ago (and distilled into oil) with plants composted on our terraces. When talking about closing the loop, seeing waste as a resource is an important aspect. Byproducts of fermentation and other processes can become valuable components somewhere else. Ethanol for energy production, glycerol for plastics, cardboard packaging and coffee grounds for propagating mushrooms.

Rethinking intelligent systems

We talked about the need to rethink the creation and use of intelligent systems. Two approaches were mentioned: one inspired by permaculture and biomimicry, where the parts make up and adapt to the whole through observation then interaction; and another based on synthetic biology, in which parts are engineered to change the whole system – for example, engineering genes in bacteria to change their behaviour or functioning for various benefits (by producing superglue, indicator colours or vitamin C for example). Talking aboout genetically modified bacteria necessarily brought us to some difficult questions such as how do we make sure these organisms stay in the lab, especially when these labs are in "my mom's basement"?

People and politics

The GM discussion was only one element of our discussion about the politics of DIY biology. We looked at the changes in licensing regulations for home labs, the FBI becoming interested in DIY biolabs, the GMO phobia (for better or worse), including the "Glowing Plants (natural light with no electricity)" project that is being kicked off Kickstarter because they used GMOs. On the fermentation end of the spectrum, we discussed the social history of sour dough and the political and economic challenges surrounding Lithuanian beer yeast cultivation.

Meredith talked about Biopunk, as presented in LA in 2010, and what has changed since. The Biopunk manifesto was a call for increasing scientific literacy in the field of biology and biotechnology and independent and open research for the betterment of communities (as well as many other things). There have been successes (PLOS, Open PCR, Eterna game, liquid handling robots, inserting plasmids into bacteria using the piezo barbecue lighter, colony printers…), but they are few and far between. The biggest issue seems to be that of replicability and the need for collaborative platforms (akin to an online lab notebook, a seed-sharing place, or a Github for DIY biologists). Talking about people and politics, we very quickly stumbled up against language and metaphor issues again, especially with computing metaphors applied to biological systems.

Notes from the workshop can be found at