Public Science

Synthetic & Systems Biology

Sharing science with the arts community

‘Unravelling pyschosis’ was the title given to a design project (pictured on homepage) by students at Central St Martins College of Art & Design inspired by the research of Dr Oliver Howes (Pyschiatric Imaging, MRC Clinical Sciences Centre). Their response to his research visualized changes in the brain’s dopamine network characteristic to schizophrenia using crochet and animation.

The Public Engagement Facility picked up the baton from the EU Epigenome Network of Excellence in promoting cross-disciplinary collaborations between scientists and designers. Fabrics of Life workshops, developed to inspire design with science, have explored themes of Epigenetics (2007), Model Organisms (2008) and Evolution (2009).

In 2010, leading scientists in the fields of Synthetic & Systems Biology presented their research to design students at Central Saint Martins. Synthetic biology constructs ‘biosystems’ from ‘biobricks’, an activity celebrated annually through the IGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) competition. Systems biology applies mathematical modelling to biological datasets to study the emergent properties of systems.

On Wednesday 10th November presentations ranged from the art of systems biology (Professor Hans Westerhoff, Manchester Centre for Integrative Genomics) to its application to the study of schizophrenia (Dr Oliver Howes, MRC Clinical Sciences Centre). Students spent several days brainstorming with senior scientists and professional designers before exhibiting a diverse array of design probes and animations on Friday 26th November at Central Saint Martins Innovation Centre.

Winning designs conceived of an array of scenarios raising pertinent questions across the themes of perfection, value, success, progress and control. The winning team proposed a novel exploitation of microbial systems with ‘The Odorant’, a bacterial body spray that metabolises sweat to produce sweet-smelling volatiles. Second prize went to ‘Synthetic Value’, which questioned the perception of value with a synthetic food printer that embodies unlimited combinations of flavour within any form, such that perfection becomes boring.

Teams were commended by a panel of judges including scientists and designers: Professor Amanda Fisher (Director, MRC Clinical Sciences Centre), Harry White (Scientist/Designer) and Suzanne Lee (Fashion Designer). Prizes were awarded by guest scientist, Professor Ueli Grossniklaus (University of Zurich, Switzerland).

The seminar and workshop series provides an opportunity for scientists to engage with the arts and young designers to keep in touch with contemporary research. One young designer commented that the workshop had provided an opportunity for them to “experience the unknown.” And speaker, Hans Westerhoff suggested that, “systems biology is an area where art could inform science.”