Christina Agapakis

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Agapakis, Christina

Christina Agapakis is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology at UCLA interested in the structure, evolution, and design of microbial communities. Working with programs like Synthetic Aesthetics and the UCLA Art|Science Center, her research is collaborative and multidisciplinary, exploring the role of art and design in biological engineering and the microbial ecology of soil, skin, and cheese.

In addition to research and teaching in biological design, she blogs about synthetic biology’s history and future for Scientific American.

ABSTRACT: Prototypes and provocations: imagining the future of synthetic biology

“Ultimately, the rate limiting factor for the future development of synthetic biology may actually be human creativity.”     
-David Drubin et al. “Designing Biological Systems.”

Synthetic biology is often defined as the application of engineering principles to biology. Such a practice is intended to facilitate the future design of biological systems for a range of applications in the production of fuels, foods, materials, and medicines. Within this paradigm, designs of genetic systems built from modular parts start as prototypes (from the Greek πρωτος –“first” and τυπος –“impression”): simplified models meant to interrogate the value of such an approach and provide measurements and tools for the refinement of future engineered systems. But such prototypes also act as provocations, asking us to imagine a future where anything can be built with biology. The work of artists and designers exploring the potential of synthetic biology take such provocations further, creating scientific fictions in the form of narratives, objects, and films rather than the concluding sentences of journal articles. These design fictions question the role new biotechnologies will play in industries and in our everyday lives, imagining changes in the ways that we interact with our bodies and health as well as with consumer products, our homes, and our cities. These prototypes and provocations–by engineers and scientists or by artists and designers–can capture the imagination of wide audiences, influencing the design of new gene networks, the curation of gallery exhibitions, the founding, funding, and regulation of research institutions and startup companies, and existential fears about the hubris of attempting to control nature. In this talk I will use several examples of recent projects from artists and scientists to explore how creativity, narrative, the media, and provocative objects inspire the future of synthetic biologies.