SynthSys

How Art Opens Up New Ways of Thinking About Science

A new publication explores the impacts of collaborations between art and science designed to explore what responsible research and innovation (RRI) really means.

“Crossing Kingdoms” is an artist-led experiment in the biological fusion of mammalian and yeast cells and the cultural discussions of this phenomenon.

The participants of this international experiment – social scientists, artists and synthetic biologists from Perth (Australia), Fort Collins (CO, USA) and Edinburgh (UK) – took a radical strategy to exploring RRI.

The idea stemmed from a talk at the SB7.0 conference in Singapore in 2017, at which Alina Chan, a post-doctoral researcher at Harvard, introduced human artificial chromosomes for large DNA delivery. This triggered an interesting discourse over what different types of living cells could (or should) be fused together and what for.

The team co-created the idea of using synthetic biology to fuse yeast and mammalian cells together – a process that in itself challenged them to reflect on what interdisciplinary collaboration meant and what ‘being responsible’ means in science.

Yeast and mammalian cells proved somewhat resistant to fusion, although the team achieved some degree of ‘marriage’ between the cells. It triggered questions as to what fusion’ really means at all. Aside from the technical challenges, the experiment also generated ideas that lead to a public art installation during the Edinburgh International Festival and later in Perth.

The process prompted scientists to think about the possibility of innovating in biology purely for artistic purposes and for audiences to reflect on biological boundaries. It challenged the team to reflect on what it means to be responsible in science.

The team conclude that their experiment in RRI was successful because they asked unexpected questions—a contrast to RRI implemented as a standard protocol.

The publication outlines the implications for biologists and artists pursuing interdisciplinary collaborations with each other and for researchers thinking about implementing RRI as more than a box-ticking exercise.

You can read the paper in full here:

https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fbioe.2020.00715/full