I went down to London for the weekend to see an exhibition by the Royal College of Art entitled "Impact!" which was a colaboration between designers and research teams to explore the potential impacts and implications of future scientific research. I always like watching when the worlds of art and science collide, and it was a good excuse to get away from my dissertation for a while.
I've done some work with designers before (during my last summer project, I wrote about it here) and I loved it. Designers bring new ways of looking at a project; they have the ability to take science out of the lab and into the real world, while still addressing social and ethical concerns. What I saw at Impact! was the ultimate in science communication and to be honest I think it showed the reasons most people get into science in the first place. It was fun, slightly geeky (five dimensional cameras!) colourful, thought-provoking and all with a wonderful overtone of sci-fi.
The project I enjoyed most (probably because I've met the designer, and saw little sneak-peaks of of it being constructed) was "Cellularity" by James King. This explored the potential of using cell-like structures to deliver pharmaceutical products into a patient, structures that over time, and years of research became so cell-like that they begin to blur the devide between life and non-life, bringing up fundamental questions abut what life even is.
Start by considering an empty cell filled with drugs and swallowed, like a tablet. Inside the body the membrane dissolves and and drug is released, similar to chemical pills. Clearly the 'cell' (if it can even be called that) is dead. Move on, design a cell which can both produce the drug itself (from a small DNA coil inside it) and replicate itself. Is that alive - or is it merely a biological drug-dispenser?
Next stage...suggested for patients who respond to no current therapy, allow the little drug-making cells to breed within the pateint, replicating in a semi-asexual manner, so that each offspring is producing a different drug. While James indroduces 'death' as a later stage in the line denoting life from non-life I think that for pure health and safety reasons it should probably slot in here. Cells that produce drugs that could potentially harm the patient must be able to die, either by self-destruction or (as James suggests) signalling to the bodys immune system to come and take them away.
If you start giving these cells the power to sense their surroundings as well (maybe to predict the best drug to produce) you get very close to something that can be called life. It's artificial life, life designed exclusively to serve the humans that use it, but life non-the-less. At this stage, it becomes almost meaningless to talk about 'life' and 'non-life' as separate boxes, and instead they become a gradiant, a sliding scale between the living and the dead. This is something that is starting to be appreciated even now when considering things like virus's, or prions. A prion is an infectious protein element, with no DNA or cell wall yet it is capible of replicating and evolving (and consequently sticking two fingers up to Dawkins a bit). If a small piece of twisted protein has a passing claim to 'life' the definition of what life actually is starts to become somewhat hazy. And scientists have made virus's in the lab, creating what could potentially be classified as living organisms from 'dead' pieces of DNA and protein.
One thing that worries me though, how many scientists went to Impact!? I'm sure plenty of designers did, and I'm sure they got a lot out of it, I certainly did. But this is really something I think more scientists should get engaged with. Designers are fun to work with, and they're good at communication especially to a general audience. They make colourful posters, and five-dimentional photography machines, and wierd spiky machines that hang from the ceiling. They bring the excitment back into biology, they remind you why you went there in the first place.
Also I really, really want a five-dimensional camera...
Follow me on Twitter!
Carl Djerassi (1923-2015): Chemist, writer, polymath, cultural icon
1 day ago in The Curious Wavefunction