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Creative Research on Biosystems

Synthetic biology isn’t just changing the life sciences. The philosopher Dr. Joachim Boldt is following the development of the new discipline, and his findings show that the creative freedom of synthetic biology is captivating for scientists, engineers, and artists alike. Boldt is studying the reasons for this widespread appeal. He sees his role as that of a moderator and encourages interdisciplinary exchange – for instance by means of a theater project.






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Art with cells: Students that participated in the iGEM competition in 2013 developed the UniBOX, that produced these patterns with cells.(Source:iGEM Freiburg 2013 )


Are we entering an age of biodesign? Instead of just analyzing biological systems, synthetic biologists are now endeavoring to reproduce them. The bioengineers modify networks of proteins and genes in cells in order to extend their abilities, paving the way for the development of new drugs or biofuels. Joachim Boldt from the Institute of Medical Ethics and Medical History of the University of Freiburg has been following the development of this branch of research since 2008.

As an associate member of the Cluster of Excellence BIOSS Centre for Biological Signalling Studies of the University of Freiburg, which conducts research on synthetic biology, Boldt mediates between the researchers and the general public. He attempts to explain what synthetic biology means for scientists and what image the science has in society. He wants to find out whether and how the achievements of bioengineers can change society. What potential do microorganisms have for solving problems like scarcity of resources, climate change, cancer, or infectious diseases when furnished with sensors for toxins or when used to produce drugs and fuels? What ethical limits need to be set for such endeavors?


  • Where Is Synthetic Biology Headed?
    Dr. Joachim Boldt Source: Patrick Seeger/ Universität Freiburg

From 2010 to 2013 Boldt teamed up with colleagues from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, the University of Erlangen, and the Hannover Medical School on the synthetic biology project Engineering Life. The team demonstrated that the German Genetic Engineering Law covers the current legal issues with regard to safety. “Copyright and patent issues are more urgent,” says Boldt. In the future, he expects the most innovations to come from medical research: “When we began the project, the main focus was on fuel production.” But Boldt’s research involves more than just assessing the consequences of technology.


  • Lab, Studio, or Bio-Workshop

He shows how the self-perception of the discipline also positions the human in nature. The language that the scientists use, in particular, is related more closely to design or engineering than to biology. “The scientists speak of ‘bio-bricks’ or ‘genetically engineered machines’ in publications and interviews, terms which are more common in disciplines like engineering and design than in biology,” so Boldt. Terms like these change the spectrum of that which we understand as “life” in everyday language. Moreover, they do not make reference to the ethical ideas connected with the concept of life. “Can this discourse shape our idea of what life is in the future?” asks Boldt.

  • Creativity is Attractive

On the other hand, this new approach to the object of research also constitutes a unique quality of synthetic biology. “What sets this research apart is the creative energy it generates at the interface between engineering and the biosciences,” explains Boldt. The first person to use the term synthetic biology to refer to research on bacteria was the journalist Barbara Hobom in 1980. This young discipline is still in the process of shaping its identity. Not until the 1990s did it develop into a distinct field of research in which the biologist becomes an engineer.

One finding of Boldt’s research is that the creativity of the new science can make it particularly valuable for society. Students and young researchers, for instance, find the discipline particularly fascinating. “This can lead to new ideas for beneficial applications,” explains Boldt. An example is the international genetically engineered machine competition iGEM. Students from around the world meet every year at this competition to present their own research projects and inventions from synthetic biology. A group from Freiburg has participated each year since 2008 – with support from BIOSS. In 2013, the Freiburg team developed a bio-toolkit for switching on and off entire networks of genes, among other things with light signals.


  • Do it Yourself and Use Your Imagination

Boldt points out that the appeal of this field of research is comparable to that of the IT industry. The do-it-yourself approach and the free access to information play a major role in attracting young scientists to the field. “There’s even an app for synthetic biology that allows you to design your own organism,” says Boldt.

Dr. Joachim Boldt Source: Patrick Seeger/ Universität Freiburg
  • Artists and Researchers Working Together

Boldt is also following the world of art, because artists are now venturing into the laboratory. Their aim is not just to present a vision of the future, but to explore new artistic horizons through the means of systematic biology. The collaboration also inspires the researchers – for instance to design new materials. In fact, the biologists even become artists themselves. The students participating in iGEM 2013 used videos and photographs to illustrate their research project. Art inspired by synthetic biology works as a vehicle for exchange between the scientists and the public sphere. Boldt sees himself in the role of a moderator in these encounters in that he works to engender mutual understanding for the desires and fears of the researchers and the general public. Just as the skepticism in society with regard to new technologies is not necessarily irrational, research in synthetic biology is not driven by dubious or unethical motives. “No scientist engaged in synthetic biology wants to produce killer viruses,” says Bold.


  • Synthetic Biology on Stage

For his next project, Boldt is venturing into the dramatic arts: Together with Josef Mackert from Theater Freiburg he is planning a theater workshop on synthetic biology in late 2014. “Students and interested amateurs can discover together what’s so remarkable about this research,” explains Boldt. The workshop is part of “Synenergene,” a project funded by the European Commission within the context of the program “Responsible Research and Innovation.” The four-year project was launched in 2013. It aims to strengthen the dialogue between science and society with a mobilization and mutual learning action plan. Researchers from the Institute of Medical Ethics and Medical History have already staged two successful productions with Theater Freiburg: In 2009 interested amateurs wrote the play Pimp your Brain – Optimizing the Human Brain. In 2011 researchers staged WUNSCHKINDER, a play exploring reproductive medicine.


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Dr. Joachim Boldt

Joachim Boldt has served as deputy director of the Institute of Medical Ethics and Medical History of the University of Freiburg since 2010. He studied philosophy and German studies in Heidelberg; Sheffield, England; and Berlin from 1991 to 1997 and earned his PhD at the Humboldt University of Berlin in 2005 with a dissertation on Sören Kierkegaard’s concept of knowledge. He has worked at the Institute of Medical Ethics and Medical History of the University of Freiburg since late 2005. He received the Eugen Fink Prize from the Faculty of Humanities in 2008 and the MTZ Prize for Bioethics from the Faculty of Medicine in 2009. Together with Dr. Oliver Müller and Prof. Dr. Giovanni Maio, he prepared an expertise on the ethics of synthetic biology for the Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology (EKAH). In addition, he has served as an expert for the Ethics Advisory Board of the German Bundestag on Ethical Implications of Synthetic Biology since 2009 and for the Danish National Ethics Council (Etisk råd) on ethical issues of neuroenhancement drugs.







Interview with Dr. Joachim Boldt

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Source: Patrick Seeger/ Universität Freiburg  


Photos from the theater project Pimp your Brain, 2009

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The researchers at the Institute of Medical Ethics and Medical History have already staged two successful productions with Theater Freiburg: In 2009, interested novices wrote the play Pimp your Brain – Optimizing the Human Brain. Source: Joachim Boldt/ University of Freiburg



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