Published: Oct. 8, 2020

The Trouble with “Hello World” in Genetic Engineering

Shanel: Can you give a summary of your current work?

Mirela: I am working at the intersection of biology, technology, and art. The main theme of my research lab is living organisms: the tiny beings that are around us and how we interact with them. We try to have a more personal way of interacting with the microbiome that are otherwise seen as something to be disinfected and removed from our bodies. On the technology side, we are building digital microfluidic biochips to help people do their own diagnostic tests. On the design and art side, we are building DIY bioreactors and bioplastics that people can grow at home for articles of clothing, home objects, or sustainable materials for other projects. We always ask: how will this impact the future? What do we need to do for people to adopt this technology and use it ethically?

Shanel: Do you have a personal vision for the future in your field? What are your hopes?

Mirela: I would really like to see healthcare be more personal. I'd like to see small, portable laboratories for use at home, like how we have small, portable computers. One of my main goals is opening access to biotechnology and healthcare for people. But what drives everything I do is learning more about myself and the way I connect with the world.

Shanel: How would you hope for people, tech, and the environment to relate through your research?

Mirela: I'm building a [biochip] device that will allow people to replicate lab protocols. They could use it to test for COVID, for example, or to create a phage cocktail that would treat a bacterial infection. But they could also use it for bad purposes, like putting together a genome for a virus.

I would like people to have greater access to healthcare. In 2020, we've realized how important it is to have accessible testing to inform our decisions. Politics can move slowly, and if you have a bacterial infection that's not treated with antibiotics, you'll die in two months. So having access to something that empowers you to unlock existing treatments is extremely important. However, it can be also be very dangerous if misused.

Shanel: By opening up the settings for the technology --

Mirela: It's been on my mind. When people point at me and say, "Hey, you're actually building a weapon," -- a tool that can be used as a weapon – I think of computing. Everything is controlled by computers. So theoretically, computer science students could become “bad” hackers, like hack into airplanes. They would have the knowledge to, but a lot don't. 

Shanel: I know a positive term is "ethical hacking", so non-ethical hacking --

Mirela: Black hat hackers. As opposed to white hat and gray hat. A lot of my students get to work in healthcare where they directly control machines, or even in airplane control systems, or cars.

They could do bad things if they wanted to, but just having access and knowledge is not enough to do harm. We have advanced so far with computing, and our lives depend so much on it. There is a way to balance new technologies when they arrive and organically integrate them, if we provide people with the right mindset and a good interactive tool.

Shanel: Do you think that framework of interaction tools and mindsets could also help human-climate interactions?

Mirela: Yes. Specifically regarding my biochips, I see the eyes of young people light up and they think, "Oh! I want to try to genetically modify a bacteria! We get to create a new organism!” 

What people don't know, is that every time you perform a genetically modifying procedure, you have to embed an antibiotic resistance gene in the new organism to make sure that it survives the process. This is a normal procedure in the laboratory. But every time you do that, you create another superbug. The reason we do that is because genetic engineering is a matter of chance. You take new DNA --

Shanel: And apply selective pressure.

Mirela: Exactly. So you need this antibiotic resistance gene in the DNA, then you put everything into antibiotic, and then only the bacteria that got transformed survive, overtake the food resources, and multiply. Otherwise, they're overtaken by the others because the rate is very low in comparison to the ones that don't get a response.

People don't know that, but they want to make bacteria glow with home kits. You just mix two things and you make it glow. And you would have no clue that you just produced antibiotic resistant bacteria in the process. That has a direct impact on the environment because we've been misusing antibiotics. The estimates are that by 2050, more people are going to die of bacterial infection than of cancer.

Shanel: We've literally changed that invisible biome.

Mirela: We didn't know that this kind of information transfers horizontally between organisms. The bacteria and its daughters will transfer the gene to other species. Because these processes were used in agriculture, now bacteria everywhere, in the soil and around us, knows about antibiotics that we use in hospitals. One of the most resistant bacterial infections that we don't have any cure for is believed to be caused by soil bacteria.

The basic process of making bacteria glow (GFP glowing) is the "Hello world!" of genetic engineering. So if I open such technology, every person who tries that would create new antibiotic resistant bacteria in the process.

My point with the whole biology class is, the tools and interaction model between humans and biology that I provide people has to show the implications of what they do. I could just make those home kits, give them a big bag of things, tell them, “You're going to make it glow! You're creating a new organism!” Or you show them the interaction and what it means for the environment. Open their minds, and still allow them to make the choice, but also explain to them they need to make sure that the bacteria are killed and don't propagate.

A Personal Lesson in Connecting With Microorganisms

Shanel: How did you learn about how your work’s and genetic engineering’s environmental effects? I meet a lot of people in the sciences who don't know about or don't pay attention to the environment impacts of their work.

Mirela: I did a lot of work in the lab. The tools make a huge impact. One of my latest art projects was published in an alt.CHI paper, Semina Aeternitatis -- we embedded the untold, never-shared memories of an elderly woman scientist into a biofilm to make them tangible. People could interact with the data through smell, taste, and touch instead of words.

Shanel: And living matter, not just lights and sound.

Mirela: We chose our bacteria to work with and we had to create our DNA. The process was interesting because our DNA contained a German poetic text of the woman scientist’s stories. We had to send it to a company to fabricate it. The company needed to know the purpose of the DNA and check that it's not a virus. They did not understand that we were making art. We talked to the biggest people at Thermo Fisher, who run the service GeneArt which synthesizes DNA.

Shanel: That's ironic.

Mirela: They are the "state of the art" in gene technology, but they were completely surprised by artists. In the process of doing that, we had to create the DNA in a specific way to be incorporated by our target bacteria. We chose harmless bacteria, Acetobacter -- "aceto" means "vinegar" in Italian -- the bacteria that creates vinegar, to get approved for an artistic license to have the work in public. Unapproved genetic engineering is punishable with several years of prison in Germany, so the government had to approve the project.

We created this beautiful, white biofilm that resembles skin, which could be worked into a sculpture. We expected to work with the DNA and Acetobacter in our three months in the lab. But we worked with E. coli instead. We used E. coli as a machine. Whenever we needed to multiply DNA or if we needed to ligate (glue together) two sequences, we put it into E. coli, leave it overnight, kill the E.coli, and extract. We use so much E. coli as a mechanism to make DNA, only to kill it and extract.

Every time we extracted DNA, we were killing another batch of bacteria. The people in the lab didn’t think anything of it. Doing it cell-free, only with chemicals, is slower and more expensive. It's cheaper to use the mechanism that's already optimized.

Shanel: You're using them as a living engine.

Mirela: Using them as machines was shocking for me. My friend Margherita and I were working on the project in 2019 as guests in this lab. These were biologists working in cancer research, such as stem cells and genetic treatments for cancer. They were so desensitized. It's just E. coli. They were not impacted by the cycle of abuse, and killing, and extraction in their experiments. That experience made me aware of the dangers of being too close to biology. You get desensitized to things.

Talk to anyone in my lab who has worked with any kind of organism. Ria was working with glowing algae, and we felt deeply when we killed our first batch. Ethan and Malika worked with spirulina. Fiona was working with E. coli and couldn’t grow anything for three weeks. You connect to the organisms that you're working with. These people had been working all their lives in lab and didn't have that connection.

Shanel: Instead of biology separating people from having a connection with the lifeforms that they're working with, there must be way for biology to help people understand.

Mirela: I'm trying to find that threshold. I talk to people for my art performances -- they get touched by the performance. When they leave the place, they see the world with different eyes.

I show them these tiny things that they didn’t know existed, and how they interact with them. Like telling you about antibiotic-resistant bacteria and selective pressure. The knowledge transforms them and they build connections. But if they work too regularly with it, like the cancer researchers, then they get desensitized. I think there's a threshold at some point.

Bio Art: Creating Spaces for a Sustainable Future

Shanel: We slipped into talking about bio art, so can you define what "bio art" means to you? How did you get introduced to it?

Mirela: Bio art is a form of artistic expression that uses biology. We are biology, so even dance could be bio art. But bio art is commonly understood to involve some work in a bio lab and use of biotechnology. Bio artists commonly work with microbiomes, bacteria, viruses, cancer cells; some of them work with plants and a few of them with animals as well.

After I finished my PhD in Copenhagen, I got involved in Biologigaragen, Danish for "bio garage" []. The organization is part of the DIY Bio movement across the world, with lots of artists that were interested in working with biology and microorganisms as their medium. That's how I got interested.

Shanel: It seems like in bio art, you've gotten to work in a lot of unique collaborative settings between scientists and artists. What helps you make those connections and facilitate the interdisciplinary collaboration?

Mirela: Environment matters a lot for this kind of collaboration. It has to happen organically between very different people with very different mindsets, as artists and scientists are trained to think differently.

In Copenhagen, I led the organization. In Berlin, there wasn't one, so I founded one. When others can't provide it, you make it. These were spaces encouraging people of different backgrounds to come together. We didn't call it "interdisciplinary" -- we called it "trans-disciplinary".

Those were non-institutional places, so people didn't feel the pressure of adhering to special rules or processes. They also felt free to express or think. If you (Shanel) came to this place, you wouldn't necessarily represent the University of Colorado just because you work there.

Shanel: By “non-institutional”, do you mean not in an academic institution?

Mirela: Any institution.

Shanel: It sounds like that would also flatten power dynamics.

Mirela: Absolutely. In the last community I was part of, we had art curators, designers, technical people, scientists, and even chefs. When we had collaborations with institutions, like funding from companies or government grants, we made sure to be clear that we were not an institution.

Shanel: I don't know European systems at all, so were you a non-profit?

Mirela: Yes, and also a non-governmental organization.

Shanel: Comparing that to your involvement in B.E.A.T. [Boulder Experiments in Art and Technology], it sounds like you're in a pretty different setting, being in America and a faculty member at a major university. What has that been like?

Mirela: The activities I do with B.E.A.T. would have been a subset of the activities I did for TOP [] in Berlin and for Biologigaragen in Copenhagen. So far, it's just been meetings. Part of founding such a place is a physical location. That changes a lot of dynamics because people could have projects on site and be part of the space.

Shanel: It also helps with being non-institutional.

Mirela: Exactly. We had workshops, dinners, and parties to build a community beyond non-work-related activities. With B.E.A.T., I'm only doing show-and-tell meetings open to the public. But such a space can be way more than meetings. The people on the organization’s board would have responsibility for the place, creating a nucleus around which the community forms.

Shanel: I remember a challenge that you’re having with B.E.A.T. is finding people who aren't university affiliated. Why do you think that is?

Mirela: The size -- it's not a fair comparison. Berlin is a city with 3.5 million people, a melting pot of artists and students from all over the world. I met artists from Europe, from Japan, from Australia. Not happening in Boulder. Boulder is way smaller and less diverse than Berlin. Copenhagen is also a big capital with 1.5 million. We have 200,000 here, half of which are university-affiliated.

Shanel: And just the one major university in town.

Mirela: An interesting selection pool would probably be Denver, but I haven't reached out so far yet. But these are mostly commercial galleries. It's hard to have anything commercial with bio art, as it cannot really be bought. It degrades very quickly, so we have to take care of our pieces to make sure that they don't get moldy.

Shanel: You have to care for it! You can't just make a piece and let it free into the world. 

Mirela: One of my friends from a traditional art background said, "I want to paint with some crazy stuff." So she started painting with yogurt, which is not super crazy stuff but contains Lactobacillus. Her painting in London started getting moldy! She was desperately asking me for help because she had exhibited in a commercial gallery. We've had exhibitions in random places where we wanted to work with a place and let biology run free, but commercial galleries would not accept moldy.

Shanel: It would be a really funny scam to try to get someone to accept that…

Shanel: What does a "sustainable future" mean for you?

Mirela: A sustainable future for me, is a future where people are less egoistic. It sounds harsh because I'm in America. They'd be more socialistic, looking around themselves and trying to cooperate with their environment, including the microbiome but all creatures in general and their movements.

We can only survive in collaboration with the organisms around us, not by fighting them. We cannot survive in sterile settings as people. We need all the dirt and organisms around us in harmony. That's sustainability.

Shanel: It's also a very anti-colonial mindset, because colonialism was all about clearing away what was there.

Mirela: It’s also anti-consumerist. If you can have bioplastics you can cook at home, and mycelium that you could grow to build your own projects, you can start growing your own clothing and building attachments to materials and objects -- rather than buying a cheap t-shirt that you throw away quickly. I teach bio-design classes where students imagine and build new things for the sustainable future from bacteria and algae. The latest class that I taught last semester came up with the idea of using mycelium to build household items and compiled a book, Myco Domicilia. []