When people talk about hacking and DIY culture, it’s generally thought of in terms of coding and software or Arduino or 3D printing or the maker communities. What you don’t think of is hacking DNA and messing around with synthetic biology. That sounds too complicated to be doing in your bedroom or garage, you never know what might happen, especially if Hollywood movies are to be believed. Next thing you know there’s an outbreak of some sort and half the neighborhood’s turned into zombies.
But this hasn’t stopped Belgian designer Tuur van Balen from exploring synthetic biology through design processes and the hacking mindset. His projects include Pigeon d’Or which uses a synthetic bacteria to modify the metabolism of pigeons so they shit detergent instead of feces. He’s also fond of hacking the DNA of yogurt to combat depression. It’s an unusual way to treat such a symptom so I fired off some emails to Balen to learn more.
The Creators Project: What are the benefits of DNA-hacking yogurt?
Tuur van Balen: Yogurt is made by bacteria, which are like little chemical factories, largely controlled by their DNA. If you can add to that DNA to add new functions to the cells, the possibilities become endless. You can make glow-in-the-dark-yogurt, add color, taste and vitamins to the yoghrt or you can have the bacteria produce drugs, (of the medicinal or recreational kind…). Scientists involved with synthetic biology believe that the benefits can be endless. Personally, I think the potential is huge but I’m not sure it’s all benefits. By demonstrating how to DNA hack yogurt, I’m hoping to introduce some diversity in the ecosystem of ideas that is considering the huge potential of synthetic biology.
How to turn pigeon poop into soap.
DIY hacking culture has permeated a lot of different disciplines. Why do you think it’s never taken hold in synthetic biology, until yourself? Do you think people are scared of creating an abomination of nature?
I don’t consider myself a DIY biologist but I am still hoping the ‘DIY BIO’ movement will take off. I believe the diversity of practitioners will make the field more interesting. However, although synthetic biology has the potential to be quite accessible and relatively easy, it still requires a lot more resources than writing an iPhone app or coding a web-service. I’m an optimist though, and I’m sure we’ll see some interesting things emerging from the DIY BIO scene.
Are your works proposals for scientific tools that society could use (like the Synthetic Immune System), or are they primarily artworks to serve as inspiration?
Although my work often uses the language of design, it is not meant as proposals for future products (I don’t believe the future deserves that). My work exists in the present (it’s present in its own present.) I hope that the things I make (objects, photographs, video…) draw people into this present to confront questions and confuse them so that when they come out on the other end, they consider where they are a little differently.
What would be your ideal DNA hack, your dream project?
A bacteria that dreams.