Bioethics. I roll the word on my tongue as I watch a bioethicist on YouTube question the future of a world where your DNA is data, just like where you live, what websites you visit and how you shop. In 2012, I came across synthetic biologist Matthew Jones’ research into reflectin, a squid protein responsible for squid iridescence, and was awestruck by the beauty of the microscopic images of squid cells and reflectin. Matthew was very generous with his time and research data, and our conversations about squids and synthetic biology began a journey that has led to SQUIDCUT.
Fear and fascination. These feelings drive the creative process as people I encounter voice their memories of Kraken, the mythological tentacled sea monster, while licking their lips at the taste of calamari. Squids are revered, as evidenced by Mr. Kubodera, a Japanese zoologist who has spent his life chasing Architeuthis, the giant squid (finally catching one on film in deep water in 2013) yet one cannot find a single live squid at the Brighton Sealife Centre. “Squid? We serve them as food for the other marine animals” was the reply.
In 2010, President Barack Obama deemed synthetic biology such an important and sensitive area of science that he commissioned a Study of Bioethics to assess the risks and benefits of this emerging science. Synthetic biology seeks to apply the principles of engineering to the practice of biology and make possible the development of biological systems, including entire organisms that have never been found in nature and serve specified human purposes. The potential benefits this science could bring in areas of health, energy and the environment has propelled it forward and since 2012, the UK has made a substantial public investment -about £200m– to establish a network of synthetic biology research centres and to build a critical mass of research. We embrace these new developments and yet there are real and valid concerns about the ethics of engineering nature, potential environment, health and safety risks associated with synthetically engineered organisms, concerns about ownership and control, and effects on existing sectors and workforces.
The ethical boundaries of any new area of research are unclear, just as the future of this science is yet to be. Will synthetic biology offer us radical solutions to global problems or will it perpetuate our current unsustainable way of living? The field for debate is open and all are welcome.
For more information about SQUIDCUT:
Read an interview with fashion journalist Anna Battista as she reviews the exhibition.