Four years ago,scientists at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) in Bangalore began collaborating with art students to try and combine artistic sensibility and new science to engineer gene functions in living organisms.
The first year of collaboration saw NCBS scientists help students from Srishti School of Art Design and Technology create bacteria that could emit the smell of freshly ploughed earth or the first monsoon rain. The collaboration using techniques now widely used in the field of synthetic biology built genetically engineered bacteria in the lab that could produce geosmin,a substance responsible for the captivating smell of fresh rain on dry soil.
The Smell of Rain science-art production by NCBS and Srishti went on to win an award at the prestigious International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) Competition held annually at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US.
Every year now,scientists at NCBS collaborate on projects with art students to create genetically engineered artworks.
These science-art collaborations in the realm of synthetic biology have opened a floodgate of knowledge in the field of genomics,resulting in scientists being able to engineer DNA functions of their liking much like computer chip designers and incorporating these lab-created DNA into living organisms like the bacteria E.Coli.
The field is advancing so rapidly that synthetic biology labs have become almost hobby labs with biosafety certifications in the US.
Richard Dawkins writes of evolution as a blind watchmaker,paradoxically capable of generating complicated entities through a process of random variation and natural selection. Synthetic biology works in the opposite direction,to design and construct complicated devices with desired properties by borrowing parts from the watchmakers toolkit, says Mukund Thattai from the NCBS biological systems modelling lab who has put together the science-art collaborations.
The last four years,we have been inviting groups of arts students. They spend a couple of weeks in the lab. They learn how to do genetic engineering and then they go back and do something else, says Thattai,who has Ph.D in physics from MIT.
What the scientists try to do is synthesize DNA in a lab by using on-off switches for genes much like in transistors to create specific functions like emitting a colour or a smell and then transfer this to bacteria and look for their expression.
The design process is very much an art,and failed devices are common new experimental and theoretical approaches will be required before synthetic biology can mature into a true engineering discipline, says Thattai.
Unlike in computer chip design,in biology the DNA synthesis,which is the fabrication part,is easy. You just have to type the sequence you want in a text document and send it to a company. What is difficult is making things work you are not going to know how it is going to work, he said.
The NCBS group spent a summer camp trying to get E.Coli to turn red as a sign when cells are damaged but were not successful. It is a simple model. It has simple computative predictions and you hope those predictions will bear out in a complicated experiment, Thattai says.
Failure is an essential part of the experiments. There is a huge cottage industry in the US now. It is kind of starting up over here,where there are small labs in different cities. They have bio safety certification. It is like a hobby club. They come,make things it doesnt work,they go away, says the NCBS scientist.