Book: Synthetic Aesthetics

Curation + Writing + Editions

"Synthetic Aesthetics: Investigating Synthetic Biology’s Designs on Nature" by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Jane Calvert, Pablo Schyfter, Alistair Elfick & Drew Endy, The MIT Press, 2014. Available from The MIT Press, or

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Synthetic biology manipulates the stuff of life. For synthetic biologists, living matter is programmable material. In search of carbon-neutral fuels, sustainable manufacturing techniques, and innovative drugs, these researchers aim to redesign existing organisms and even construct completely novel biological entities. Some synthetic biologists see themselves as designers, inventing new products and applications. But if biology is viewed as a malleable, engineerable, designable medium, what is the role of design and how will its values apply?

In this book, synthetic biologists, artists, designers, and social scientists investigate synthetic biology and design. After chapters that introduce the science and set the terms of the discussion, the book follows six boundary-crossing collaborations between artists and designers and synthetic biologists from around the world, helping us understand what it might mean to ‘design nature.’ These collaborations have resulted in biological computers that calculate form; speculative packaging that builds its own contents; algae that feeds on circuit boards; and a sampling of human cheeses. They raise intriguing questions about the scientific process, the delegation of creativity, our relationship to designed matter, and, the importance of critical engagement. Should these projects be considered art, design, synthetic biology, or something else altogether?

Synthetic biology is driven by its potential; some of these projects are fictions, beyond the current capabilities of the technology. Yet even as fictions, they help illuminate, question, and even shape the future of the field.



“It is essential that designers and artists engage with the emerging field of synthetic biology, but how is not always clear. Synthetic Aesthetics provides a fascinating interdisciplinary discussion of the key issues and ideas driving developments in this field, but more importantly for artists and designers, it offers a range of ways designers and artists from very different points on the creative spectrum can critically engage with this exciting field.”
—Anthony Dunne, Head of the Design Interactions Programme, Royal College of Art

“Synthetic Aesthetics takes a timely view of the interface between science and design from a number of angles. The charismatic introduction sets the stage for the different in-depth views that follow. This book is a good, accessible read for all and as such will also make a great addition to education in biology, engineering, design, and humanities.”
—Pamela Silver, Professor of Systems Biology, Harvard Medical School and Harvard University Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering

“Just as post-war designers Ray and Charles Eames showed us how molded plywood techniques for building airplane wings could result in unexpected, and now timeless, pieces of furniture, artists and designers like Daisy Ginsberg are showing us how bacteria and other biological building blocks may give us entree to an entirely new species of experiences.”
—John Maeda, Design Partner, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers