Art as a link between synthetic biology and society?
Our team was born from our common curiosity for synthetic biology and the opportunities it offers to do greatness by solving problems faced by society. However, genetic engineering faces crystallizing fears that threaten the fulfilment of these prospects and might eventually paralyze synthetic biology’s societal acceptance.
When we were reflecting on our project, several students in our midst kept coming up with art-related topics, that were first brushed aside as reserve projects. However, during our brainstorming weekend, we suddenly realized that the topic of safe chassis and containment kept coming up during assessments of most proposed projects. All these legitimate concerns had to be addressed to prevent public rejection of synthetic biology as a whole. But how could we communicate effectively about biology with “lay” people without reducing the message to dry facts that appear remote? The “eureka moment” came together as we were thinking of poetry as an artistic medium to reflect strong feelings of fears, joy and hope in what we call “synthetic poetry”.
Our iGEM project “DNA FREE POETential” aims to reinforce the link between synthetic biology and society. We act on two main axes:
i) at the scientific level, we propose to increase chassis safety by removing its genomic information, and
ii) at the artistic level, we have developed a new concept based on an artistic performance emphasizing the potential of DNA-free cells.
Each experiment is associated to synthetic poems.
The concept of DNA-free cell is suitable to explain a lot of fundamental and applied aspects of synthetic biology. We then plan to largely communicate on the project so that people (children, artists, scientists and people without a scientific background) could participate to the project by proposing a personal production (few words, poem, drawing) about their feelings on our project. Art is a universal way of communication and we intend to use it to stimulate the dialogue between scientists and society about synthetic biology.
A cell without DNA?
DNA is a key constituent of every cell however its complete degradation does not mean immediate cell lysis. Little is known about the fate of a DNA-less bacteria. One article reported cells of Bacillus subtilis are still metabolically active for up to 5 h after complete DNA degradation1. In this state, the overall protein concentration remains stable within at least 5 h1. We were greatly inspired by this article and wanted to characterize the fate and potential of DNA-less Escherichia coli strains. It seemed to us that this also raises philosophical questions about Life.
What can a cell achieve before the final countdown?
By deleting the DNA thanks to different nucleases, our project aims to experimentally demonstrate the possibilities of a cell without DNA. The sphere of possibilities is large so we will focus our work on a few uses of a DNA-free cell.
1) Improve the safety of an existing project
Safety is an important aspect of synthetic biology. A DNA-free cell cannot divide and thus cannot proliferate in the environment. By using a new DNA-less chassis to improve a previous iGEM project, we will illustrate that, also in synthetic biology, “less is more”: DNA-less but more secure. The 2018 Paris-Saclay team created Escherichia coli cells carrying an enzymatic pathway able to degrade methotrexate, a toxic molecule, into harmless compounds. Using cells induced to lose their DNA, we will assess the ability of the enzymatic pathway to degrade methotrexate in this context.
2) Mimic an "RNA-cell"
Less can also mean new possibilities. By the way, we had the idea that we could try to go back to the origins, retracing the steps of evolution back to a cell where the genetic information was carried on RNA instead of DNA. In a new experiment, we will try to present a proof of concept of the existence of an RNA cell. After complete degradation of the DNA, we will infect E. coli with RNA phages. Among other genes, RNA phages encode a RNA-dependent RNA polymerase which replicates RNA. We hope that a DNA-free cell can induce a productive infection, indicating that DNA is not necessary to produce living particles like virions.
3) Use art to communicate about our DNA-free cell, listen to people's reaction and integrate their feelings into our project
Our team wanted to bond science and art and we choose poetry, one of the seventh form of art, to do so. We are the first team ever to fully integrate poetry to an iGEM project. Art is a universal way of communication and we hope that our poems will engage public attention. We will write poems based on our discussions with people. We plan to meet people, such as children, elders, art students, to communicate around synthetic biology and our project. These meetings are the occasion to collect their feedbacks and their perception of our work. We then will translate their opinions and feelings in the form haïkus, which are Japanese poems composed of only 3 sentences.
1 - Elbaz, Maya, et Sigal Ben-Yehuda. 2015. « Following the Fate of Bacterial Cells Experiencing Sudden Chromosome Loss ». MBio 6 (3): e00092-15. https://doi.org/10.1128/mBio.00092-15.