Synthetic Biology

A cheese made from human bacteria, part of Selfmade, 
a project by Christina Agapakis and Sissel Tolaas. 
Photograph: Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg

A ripe round of brie sits next to a block of farmhouse cheddar, emitting a pungent aroma not dissimilar to the musky whiff found at the bottom of a laundry basket. "That one comes from my armpit," says Daisy Ginsberg, pointing to the brie.

"The other one comes from the artist's mouth." There is a third block, labeled Ben's Natural Rind Cheese. I don't want to ask where that comes from.

These cheeses, which you could call edible self-portraits, are grown from human bacteria by American biologist Christina Agapakis, with the help of Norwegian artist Sissel Tolaas.

They are one of 25 projects Ginsberg has brought to the Science Gallery in Dublin for Grow Your Own, an exhibition that shows how artists are working with scientists to explore the rapidly expanding field of synthetic biology – the practice of interfering in the design of organic life.

It can perhaps be summed up in an intriguing question raised by one of the artists in this show: would a mouse with Elvis's DNA behave like him?

"It's causing a biotechnical revolution, but most people don't even know what it is," says Ginsberg, who studied architecture before doing a masters in Design Interactions at the Royal College of Art.

Headed by the show's co-curator Anthony Dunne, the department has become an incubator of wild thinking, a place where many of the show's exhibitors developed their way of looking at the world, dreaming up compelling near-future scenarios in which design, politics and science collide.

"Synthetic biology is essentially about how we design life," says Ginsberg, "which raises a whole raft of legal and ethical questions that are only just beginning to be addressed. We're hoping this exhibition will help to open up a public debate by asking what we could or should be designing."

Next to the fridges of human cheese stands an anatomical model of a pregnant woman, sliced open to reveal the womb. Yet instead of a human fetus, nestling cozily in the uterine lining is a baby dolphin.

"Wouldn't it be nice to give birth to an endangered species?" says the project's Japanese designer, Ai Hasegawa, a keen scuba-diver whose grandfather was a sushi chef. 

"People are finding it harder to justify having children," she adds, "particularly given the feeling of uncertainty in Japan after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and there are moral questions about adding to the Earth's overpopulation.

Mothering a shark or a dolphin could satisfy the maternal urge, while investing in the future food supply." At the end of its natural life, Hasegawa suggests, you could track down your aquatic offspring and eat it.     To read more, click here…

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