Question: How have language, metaphor, and fiction shaped synthetic biology, and can we find new scripts to generate other meanings?
1. Meaningless Words aka Buzzwords
The field of Synthetic Biology, similar to Silicon Valley, can be a breeding ground for coded language, jargon, and outright nonsense. Founders, scientists and investors juggle all-too-often-heard buzzwords to explain why the thing they do is just so much more special than all the other things out there. It seems that the Biotech industry has developed a unique culture with its own language. How are “muggles” supposed to understand what insiders are saying and why should they trust them?
Damian Garde, a biotech reporter, recently put together a Devil’s Dictionary of Biotech to collect the most common buzzwords. Here is one commonly used suffix: “-ome (n.): A catch-all suffix derived from ‘genome’ and since applied to describe any aspect of biology you want to sound expansive, including the proteome, the microbiome, and the predictome” (Damian Garde). As in the following example: Roivant Sciences is “mapping the drugome, or mapping the universe of drug candidates that have already been discovered for various purposes” (Vivek Ramaswamy, CEO of Roivant Sciences).
Damian Garde’s dictionary shows the linguistic absurdity when founders and investors describe their products and services, which are based on synthetic biology. Why does the biotech industry use such a complicated language?
The hard reality is that most scientists’ experiments fail to deliver a successful therapy or drug. There are so many opportunities to fail along the way, from laboratory synthesis to animal testing to clinical trials. Where there is a success, it may be sometimes marginal. And yet an enormous amount of time, energy, and PR goes toward efforts to create optimism regarding this failure-prone activity and to simply cover-up. Therefore, metaphors are often used to deliver a specific message to the public.
2. Synthetic Biology Metaphors
Metaphors are not just rhetorical devices that can be used to cover things up. They are actually fundamental tools for thinking about the world and acting on it. They can create new meanings in any field, especially synthetic biology.
The French biophysicist Stéphane-Armand Nicolas Leduc was most likely the first one to use the term synthetic biology (or “biologie synthétique”) in 1912. As the term “synthetic biology” has been used for over a century, its use would become inevitable. Since then, many metaphors have been used to describe the field. According to Hellsten and Nerlich, synthetic biology seems to be fundamentally grounded in three main metaphors:
- “Organisms are books” that can be read, edited, and written.
- “Organisms are machines” that can produce “stuff” and “parts”.
- “Organisms are computers” that can be programmed to do things.
The three big metaphors can be directly linked to three big technological revolutions: the printing revolution initiated by Gutenberg in the 1440s; the Industrial Revolution based on new types of engines and machines that started in the 1800s and bringing with it mass production of standardized parts, and the computer revolution that began in the 1950s.
The idea of complete control and the reduction of biology to the digital domain can limit our full understanding and appreciation for biological life forms. For example, the cell has been compared to many things, from “a complex chemical refinery” (James Trefi) to “a vast, teeming metropolis” (Guy Brown). A cell is both of those things and neither.
The main issue is that biology or simply life on earth had over more than 4 billion years to evolve and advance. In comparison, our own civilization had just a couple of thousand years to understand the environment around us. Although we can read a whole human genome, we don’t completely understand every part of it. How can we unlock the meaning of synthetic biology better than the commonly used buzzwords and metaphors?
3. Think Bio
Ginkgo Bioworks has to rethink the current tech-driven and overpromising rhetoric used to explain synthetic biology. The company needs to stand for authentic values. It needs to be authentic because authentic leaders know that being more authentic makes them more effective and successful.
“Think Bio” is a campaign that explores what would happen if the greatest minds and species knew about synthetic biology. What if Shakespeare had a microscope and spoke biotech? Maybe he would have written: “A rose by any other name would smell as yeast”. Einstein would perhaps say: “God does not play dice when it comes to protein folding!”. Marco Polo would say: “If you could visit a cell, you wouldn’t like it.” And mammoths would think: “I leave my DNA perfectly frozen in ice to become recreated by humans thousands of years later”.
Many great minds have thought about life and therefore synthetic biology before the field even existed. Those could be also included in the campaign:
“To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life.” (James Joyce)
“What I cannot create, I do not understand.” (Richard Feynman)
The campaign would explore the notion that humans, trees, insects, animals and even bacteria all share one central molecule in the form of DNA which is crucial for their existence. With the appropriate storytelling, Ginkgo could capture the human imagination and make biology more understandable. But rather than being influenced by the tech narrative, it would be more influenced by culture and our common language.
The “Think Bio” campaign assumes that biology is not merely happening to us but that we have the ability to change it for the better. Therefore, we need to share stories that help us imagine the new possibilities. We need to show how biology will enable us to do things that the digital world simply can’t. One campaign text could be:
“We get it. Computers are great. We use it every day for googling, zooming, and messaging. But what about the physical world? How to stay healthy and have a nutritious diet? How to protect your skin and consume sustainably? Think Bio.”
In addition, synthetic biology can be used to create entirely new things that can’t be created using traditional chemistry or physics. One example of this is Synlogic’s “living medicine”. We will need to expand our vocabulary to describe those new products and features. But also stories about the basics can help to capture the public’s imagination:
“You have no secrets from your cells. They know far more about you than you do. Each one carries a copy of your whole genome, the instruction manual for your body. So it knows not only how to do its job but every other job in the body. Think Bio.” (Inspired by Bill Bryson)
4. Cultural Risks
The commonly shared positive vision of the future offered by synthetic biology might face many cultural challenges. Achieving the vision will depend on how openly society will accept artificial life forms in our midst and our environment. The development of synthetic biology could trigger some strong concerns because synthetic biology enables human agency into the creation of life itself.
Some see synthetic biology as a singular way to understand and master nature. However, such ambitions might seem doomed in a world where people are terrified by far more modestly engineered organisms such as GM crops. For many, synthetic biology provokes a profound unease, a sense that human beings are interfering with a more fundamental cosmic ordering or even “playing God”.
If the public reacts with alarms and skepticism toward this novel technology, a stringent regulatory climate could hold back the development of this nascent field and hinder further progress. Therefore, the campaign needs to be open to feedback and be honest about the risks. It needs to embrace the challenges but also be realistic about the potential.
5. Brave New World
It’s easy to imagine a future where synthetic jellyfish roam looking for toxins to destroy, where eco-friendly plastics and fuels are harvested from fermentation tanks filled with yeast, and where bacteria is programmed to kill cancer cells.
However, microbes evolved over billions of years to address the specific needs and challenges of their natural environments. They were not made for industrial fermenters and bioreactors. In theory, gene transfer from one system to another may sound easy. In practice, it is hard work and rarely generates sufficient return on investment. Moreover, it’s even harder to predict the second and third-order consequences of introducing more synthetic life into our world. This demands us to be fully aware and consider all potential consequences as previously discussed (view chapter 4).
In William Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest”, the character Miranda who has spent most of her life isolated from society shouts out after seeing the abundance of people for the first time:
“O wonder! / How many goodly creatures are there here! / How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, / That has such people in’t.” (William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act V, Scene I, ll. 203–206)
Let us be brave but also thoughtful when we “Think Bio” and create a future that we all want.