Notes, thoughts, and news on synthetic biology.

Scientific Aesthetics

I have a piece with Sissel Tolaas in the new issue of Current Opinion in Chemical Biology on aesthetics in science. The issue, edited by the artist and designer Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, includes reviews by scientists, philosophers, and artists discussing the role of aesthetic and senory judgements in the everyday practice of science, the theory and representation of scientific facts, and in the design of living technologies.

DNAMany scientists and philosophers have discussed the role of beauty in science, in particular when judging competing theories in physics. Glenn Parsons reviews these arguments and looks at the role of aesthetics in chemistry and biology-- in the representation of molecular structure, and in the form and function of molecules. He cites Francis Crick calling DNA ‘‘the molecule which has style,’’ for the simplicity and elegance of how the structural form of the double helix reflected the replicative function of the molecule.

For many science lovers, the aesthetic value of DNA lies in the modernist design maxim "form follows function," but in his review "Aesthetics in Synthesis and Synthetic Biology," Steven Benner argues that DNA, like other products of natural selection, is more of a "hack" than a perfected form:

Again and again, detailed inspections of living systems have taught biologists that Darwinian evolution generally has not delivered elegant solutions, aesthetic solutions, or even simple solutions, to challenges presented by the need to remain alive. Instead, in its underlying detail, biology reflects four billion years of random variation, historical accident, flawed adaptation, and partial optimization. Thus, biology (at least as known to biologists) is better described as a ‘hack’. In its details, life resemble less an aesthetic, and more something expected from generations of computer nerds re-writing code originally written for another purpose, at a different place, and with imperfect skill...

[L]ike so much else in biology, the aesthetic beauty of DNA comes only from artistic renderings of the molecule that make visible a particular that cannot, in fact, be seen at all. The colors in those renderings come from wavelengths of light that are 1000-fold larger than a DNA molecule itself. And as often as not, the molecule is abstracted by, well, things that look like Legos.

DNA seen with electron microscopeTo have properly designed DNA, Benner argues for a modified set of 12 bases with improved symmetry and utility. To philosophers of aesthetics like Glenn Parsons, however, utility and function are not necessarily part of the aesthetic value of an object or a work of art, and he argues that the "molecular delights" that a chemist sees are not always in the realm of the aesthetic per se. Despite these technical and philosophical arguments, there can be aesthetic pleasure in the experimental design and the molecular representations that advance our understanding, that let us see the invisible, from the first X-ray crystallography images of DNA sixty years ago to the first electron microscope photographs of DNA published this week.

X-ray crystallography image of DNA

Scientific images and representations can translate different kinds of sensory information into data that we can visualize, parse, understand, and share. This scientific synesthesia influences how we define scientific information and is influenced by sensory and aesthetic factors, from line drawings or ball-and-stick chemical structures to colorful paintings of protein structures.

We need images and models of the invisible world in order to understand it, and Emily Candela's review "Assembling an Aesthetic" looks at the aesthetic and sensory experience of touch and its interaction with protein crystallography. Structural biologists and crystallographers use drawings and computer renderings as well as physical models and more recently immersive 3D virtual environments to explore protein structures. Like work by anthropologist of science Natasha Myers, who has studied the molecular embodiment of protein structures in the practice of crystallography, Candela explores the translation of nanoscale protein data to human-scale physical models to be assembled, touched, and experienced:

Touch takes us into domains that are difficult to access through vision alone – those of material and process...Technologies are also extending tactile possibilities, as in the case of scanning probe microscopy’s ‘process of touching the nanoscale.’ In fact, ‘process’ is a key word, for it is where such an exploration of touch, embroiled as it is in the ‘daily work’ of science, leads. An aesthetics of touch can reveal those moments preceding relative certainty, during testing, when matter is in transition and failure remains an imminent possibility...

Many of the processes brought up in research on models, from their manipulation to ‘dancing’ a protein, are among those facets of scientific research that Maura Flannery, writing on the aesthetics of biology (PDF), comments, ‘are not considered under the ‘Methods’ section’ of most scientific papers, ‘but they might well be among the most important methods that distinguished researchers use in their work'...Such an aesthetic can also have an impact beyond the walls of scientific research institutions. Much, but not all, ‘communication of science’ outside these walls is concerned with conveying knowledge that is in a relatively conclusive state. The aesthetic outlined here, on the contrary, which takes process as its starting point, engages instead with the inconclusive, contingent, messy, and ongoing...It gets at aspects of scientific practice that are difficult to express (especially to non- scientists) with an illustration or photograph – those qualities, movements, moments of contact and material change, which in fact take after the model, as ‘unfolding’.

The aesthetics of assembly and the molecular delights of chemical aesthetics also play a role in the bottom-up synthetic biology of protocells. Michele Forlin, Roberta Lentini, and Sheref Mansy explore "Cellular Imitations" in their review, discussing the subjectivity of the line that divides the living from the nonliving:

There is no satisfactory definition of life. Nevertheless, it is generally agreed that biological parts alone are not alive, but the properties that emerge from their cooperation are collectively referred to as living. Without clear criteria that can be objectively fulfilled for a system to be considered living, the available path forward is simply to build systems that imitate the common features of life. For example, living things generally reproduce, move, adapt to changing environmental conditions, and interact with each other. Of these features of life, reproduction has attracted the most attention, which is understandable since replication and evolution form the foundation of life as we know it. However, a machine, even a machine that is built with natural biological parts, that is programmed to copy DNA and to split into two probably would not be confused with a living system. Perhaps this is because the decision of whether something is alive or not is the result of a subjective comparison between what was previously agreed upon as living with the system in question. The successful mimicking of a single trait when compared against the complexity of a living cell would be perceived as an inadequate representation of cellular life.

Interestingly, the errors and mistakes of evolution--the "hacks" that diminish the aesthetic value of biology for some of the other contributors to the issue--become a crucial part of the aesthetic and and subjective definition of life for the protocell engineers:

Additionally, the programming of repetitive behavior in itself misses another aspect of life, which is error. Cellular function is largely based on stochastic processes and even the fundamental event of genomic replication proceeds with error. A system that mimics a trait of life too well, probably would be perceived more as a machine rather than life.

If the objectivity of machines is not life-like enough for true synthetic life, the human subjectivity involved in deciding when something is alive is not scientific enough for protocell science. Forlin et. al. discuss instead the possibility of constructing "cellular Turing tests," where "the responsibility of determining whether something is alive or not [is moved] away from us and towards natural cells" (PDF). Scientific objectivity depends on the tools that can interface between the human senses and the object of study, the machines that can translate the natural world into the visualizations, models, and datasets that we experience, aesthetize, and interpret. An exploration of the aesthetic and sensual in science and technology exposes the beautiful fuzzy edges of scientific practice. We can add many layers in between human subjectivity and scientific objects, but there is always something human and beautiful in science.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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