Can Fungi Be Engineered for Civil Disobedience?

VISION: Give biotechnology tools to artists and activists to use as new forms of social protest. 

TEAM: Eva Auer, Sean Greaves and Joseph Revans
SCHOOL: University of Edinburgh (2017)

So far biotechnology has mostly been used for commercial purposes: increasing crop yields, creating new medicines, industrial products. As of the early 21st century, it has not yet been taken up by widespread political movements. But could it be? 

Students from University of Edinburgh imagined the United Kingdom in 2029, 8 years after Brexit, when biotech has been deregulated to stimulate business. The students’ design fiction project imagines how biotech tools could be harnessed for “biological civil disobedience.” 

The first example is called Wildflower Protest, which addresses the high concentrations of heavy metals in the soil left behind by exploitative manufacturers and industries. In order to protest this pollution, and alert citizens to toxic soil, ecology groups have created a biosensor by inserting genes into poppies so that they turn colors when exposed to high levels of heavy metals. 

The students’ design fiction project imagines how biotech tools could be harnessed for “biological civil disobedience.” 

The second example, called Biohacked Buildings, imagines a new way to fight gentrification. After bioengineering fungi so that their spores are hallucinogenic, saboteurs inject the fungus into the walls of vacant buildings, rendering the real estate unusable. 

The third example is called Subdermal Storage. After activists do DIY microbial engineering, they need a safe space to store their creations and protect their intellectual property. These biohackers hide their designer microbes in capsules implanted under the skin, using their own bodies as bacterial incubators.

“Biotechnology forecasts have ignored the diverse communities of makers, craftspeople, hobbyists, and activists who have historically influenced the trajectory of new technologies,” said the University of Edinburgh students. “Our project asked questions about access: Who should be able to design and modify organisms? And what are the acceptable reasons to do so?”

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Cite this Article

Auer, Eva, Sean Greaves and Joseph Revans. “Can fungus be engineered for civil disobedience?” Issues in Science and Technology (February 12, 2021).