Introduction: Science Fiction and Human Practices

Context and Narrative

As the summer weeks went by while we were working in the lab, we realized that we were beginning to adopt a tunnel vision mindset. We became so focused on the various technical details of how to jump through the next hoop of the project that we lost sight of what this project meant to us and the potential that it had.

In order to get new perspective on this project, we decided to have a team workshop to discuss the potential implications of our project in the distant future. With the help of our Artist in Residence, Megan Daalder, we worked to create science fiction narratives based on potential applications of our project. Although slightly fantastic, the stories that came out of the workshop led to a very interesting discussion of the role of science in society on a broader level. Talking about future implications of scientific breakthroughs in a narrative context helps us to connect more personally to new technology and is fun way to discuss these topics that can lead to a deeper understanding.

Workshop Structure

We started by discussing scientific "storytelling" at many different levels. How is the story of synthetic biology told by iGEM teams? How do we tell the story of how a technology might work in the future in a grant proposal? How do we tell our scientific story in a lab report or scientific paper? Where does science fiction belong in these sorts of stories?

We were asked to imagine potential futuristic applications that might stem from the results of our project. We filled out templates for possible industrial and therapeutic advancements in the years 2025 and 2050 based on our project. Many of these were somewhat fanciful, bordering on science fiction, but they broadened the scope for thinking about the magnitude of impact that science has on society.

We then exchanged papers and read over each others' predictions. We chose the predictions that we found to be the most interesting, and took 15 minutes to write brief narratives about our chosen scenarios. We took turns sharing our short stories with the group, and then used the stories as a segue to delve into more grounded discussions about the role science plays in society, the potential role science could play in the future, and the role that we think science should play.

If you would like to conduct a similar workshop with your team, all of the templates that we used can be downloaded by clicking here!


Here are a few examples of the stories written by members of our team during the workshop. We hope that you enjoy reading them as much as we enjoyed writing and discussing them!

Story #1

Prediction 2025: MTD based technology used to create teeth cleaning and teeth whitening treatments. The public gradually accepts the use of cosmetological biotechnology.

Prediction 2050: Use of cosmetolgcial treatment expands to modifying melanin to produce unnatural pigment. Public backlash causes new type of discrimination emerge against modified individuals. This in turn causes a schism within the modified community between bleach-skinned Bleakers and obsidian-skinned Inkers.

It’s 5 AM, April 15th 2047. It’s been 7 hours since the mock protests gave away to riots, and it’s not letting up. War of the fashions between the Inks and the Bleaks. A pale imitation of racial conflict of the previous century. And I find myself a Bleaker awake in a pile of Inked bodies. The streets look like chess board peppered in blood.

I remember how all of this began. A harmless shock statement to offend the common sensibilities. Starting with decades old viral treatment to sterilize and bleach the teeth as a basis, a group of grad students took it a step further by allowing it to modify genetic and epigenetic elements of the skin and making it open source. In the beginning, many variations of the treatment floated around such as chrome and glow-in-the-dark. Some were carcinogenic; others simply didn’t catch on.

Natural selection took course, and only the most popular variations remained: alabaster white or pitch black. White was popular with wanted to have the image of a rebel without losing their clean-cut image. People who modified their skin wanted to look intimidating and offensive to the public. In retrospect, I think people liked the monochromatic simplicity.

I chose the color white because my girlfriend decided to be an Inker. Black and white go well together you see.

Naturally, the public was outraged. Accusations were made that we were harboring racial or political agendas. They called us unnatural and accused us of mocking the racial challenges our ancestors had go through. Thinking ourselves clever, we didn’t defend ourselves, we played along. Initially we had Bleaker rights protests and Inker Bleaker marriages. We had no common agenda, we simply wanted to rebel.

My girlfriend once said as a joke, “we are products of more enlightened times.” She hated the societal hypocrisy. She was young, beautiful, but hated that hypocrisy and cowardice built into the society that made discussion of race impossible over half a century. For her, inking was about protest. For me, it was about the inclusivity. Aggression between two sides was part of the joke, but there was no denying a strange sort of rivalry developing. Egged on by ever critical responses from the media and social networking sites, both sides set out to provoke the nation. If one side had a protest, other side started a riot. When Bleakers had a swimsuit parade, Inkers had nude flash mobs. Each time both sides tried to outdo one another, the greatest in-joke in the world. Wasn’t it? Maybe I’m deluding myself. I have some responsibility for what happened.

I don’t know when we started taking it seriously. Maybe, I saw some preferential treatment from other Bleakers: better job offers here, little discounts there. Inkers weren’t happy about the preferential treatment. They felt that we were taking it too far. Of course, most Inkers are known for their recklessness in general. Often arrested for outrageous stunts and violence. They were in no position to criticize us.

My legs hurt. I can’t move, or they’ll find me.

It was just another mock-protest. I don’t remember too well what it was about, but there was a couple of picketers with the sign, “God, Save These Wretches”. Couple of Plainskins actually came up to us and started pushing us around. Idiots who couldn't deal with their own problem so they inflict themselves to others. Though this time they had real cause to be angry: a security footage of a Bleaker murdering a Plainskinned woman.

She said we should find other people. She didn’t want to be part of a joke gone stale.

While the offending parties were eventually taken away by the police. Strange mood settled over the crowd. No real accusations, but shift in a glance and suspicious stares. Many thought that crowd would simply disperse. But then someone lit the spark.

Undoing the melanin modification is easy. Like a snake shedding her skin. Pink and soft skin like a new born. Easy to bruise.

No one knew if it was a Bleaker or an Inker who threw the first punch. Cooler heads from both groups tried to separate them. But accusations started flying in from both groups. It must have looked surreal when down above, little black and white dots coalesce with their own colors seemingly trying to form a divided circle.

This is what I could make out before I blanked out: an Inker grabbed me out of tangle of bodies. He recognized me from the press prints. I was one of the first in line, a speaker for my people (my people?). He asked me

I slammed down the trunk. I may have cried a little, as I drove towards the nearest protest.

My paranoia is unjustified I think. They weren’t going to look for me in a pile of bodies. All the same, I think I’ll stay here. The bleeding in my leg is not stopping.

Underneath the coal black bodies, I look at the aftermath. It’ s gruesome, pointless, and kind of pretty. As I always thought black and white go together. We are the product of the more enlightened times after all.

Story #2

Prediction 2025: In vitro Immune system used to generate treatments for all conceivable human disease.

Prediction 2150: Natural human immune system is bred out of general population due to general efficiency of artificial immunity. When new viral strains that cannot be targeted by synthetic immunity emerge, several nations decide to harvest immunity from niche communities who still have natural immunity.

IVIS, the medical breakthrough of the 21st century. Hailed as one of mankind's greatest triumph. It was supposed to provide complete protection from any disease, virus, bacteria, even cancer and neurodegenerative disease. It would bring us a new era of prosperity. It became a common practice to receive the IVIS vaccination at birth. A completely synthetic immune system far superior than the one found naturally in our own bodies. Soon everyone, even babies in third world countries would receive this vaccine. And why not? It was cheap, comparable to a bottle of aspirin. The human immune system, evolved over millions of years, rendered useless in a matter of decades. Evolution stepped in accordingly. Why waste evergy maintaining a process as complex as the immune system when it served no function? By 2090 the aveage white cell count was down 60%. By 2150 no had a white blood cell to speak of.

Looking back, I find it ironic that the isolation we strive for was the very thing that brought the attention of the entire world on us. My name is Jeremiah Catz, I was a member of an isolationist community of Hasidic Jews in the southern tip of South Africa. We were relatively few. Around 1200 of us. The world we lived in was one of change. With each passing the day the world became a different place. New technologies were being developed at an incredible pace, the technology developed one year were left entirely obsolete by the developments of the next. In a world like this, where nothing is constant, no one is sure of anything. Nothing seems real. You feel as if you are living your life in eternal sleep,always shifting between dreams. Or so I've been told. When our community formed in the year 2020, it was was founded on the principal that the key to a prosperous and wholesome life could not be found in the world that was growing around it. Instead the community chose to revoke modern technology altogether and build a society founded upon the principles of hard work and tradition. None of the technologies we had were invented after 1930, and all our food we farmed and raised ourselves. Our community gradually cut off almost all ties with the rest of the world. As a result, IVIS never reached us. We still had the immune system that God gave us.

2165, the year of the epidemic. Humanities greatest test. No one was immune. The virus was relentless. IVIS had no response. People began dying in droves. The virus attacked the mind first, the victims mental faculties were completely depleted in a matter of days. Death followed shortly after. No one was immune. No one except us. We were different. Maybe it was that we were still human and the rest of the world wasn't. Maybe this was God's way of asserting his will, his way of punishing mankind. I wont say that there wasn't a small sentiment of validation, smugness, maybe even satisfaction within some members of the community when the situation was fully understood. The outside world that we so reproached with their fancy vacuum cleaners and such was coming crashing down, and we, we were the chosen ones. God had smiled down upon us. At least that's how we saw it at first.

Then everything changed for us. Someone from the outside figured out that we were the solution. Our blood. The immunity, the cure, ran through our veins. Through an injection of just a small amount of of one of our people's blood, immunity could be transferred to another person. One liter of our blood could cure almost a thousand of the afflicted. Like a tidal wave had crashed down on us, our community was forever changed. We were at the center of the world. We had to give our blood to the children, they were the most precious. No, we should give it to the politicians and leaders, they were the ones that could rebuild society. A community once so quiet and isolated, had to make decisions that would affect the future of man. Division started to arise. We all agreed initially that the community had to act as one. Any decision we made had to be the decision of the group. It would not be so easy. Some advocated selling our precious resource to the highest bidders. The money could sustain us for endless generations to come. Everyone had their own idea of what was right, a different vision of how to shape the future. Humanity was ours for the molding. It was never said, but it was at the back of all of our minds. Until we made a decision, however, not one drop of our blood would be given to anyone. Then Tevya disappeared. He was just a boy of 14. No one goes missing in the community. It just did not happen. This had to be something else. Then Job, then Jakob. Then Tsaitl was taken, my own daughter. Fear swallowed all of us. We finally gave in. We surrendered ourselves to the will of the Republic of South Africa in return for protection. The bombs fell next. The other nations would not sit by and be eradicated. They demanded their own share of our blood. It seemed the greatest war in the history of mankind is about to begin. That is where I find myself. Locked in my cell in South Africa as I hear the bombs fall around me.

Story #3

Prediction 2025: In vitro immune system released in market, but the prohibitive price range ensures only the upper class has the access to it.

Prediction 2050: Every data relating to In vitro immune system including manufacturing methods and financial records leaked to the public. Causes massive public backlash and eventual upheaval in the medical community and industry.'

I am an independent Chinese woman that don’t need no man. I am obviously rich, upper middle class. I had acquired the technology of in vitro immune system by breaking into a lab. Because of me, this technology is now widely available to the public. I work as a professional criminal. I don’t like the connotation of criminal as negative. For me, “criminal” means ‘crime-exposing”. I expose the crimes of corporations and labs.

I used to have a husband, but I got a divorce because he wasn’t needed. In my busy life, I can only focus on two things at once - child rearing and a job. I can’t handle a relationship and the time and effort it takes to make it work.

I am able to make a better living for myself and my child without the need of a man controlling me and telling me what to do. I lost my husband, but no biggie, I work hard to bring food to the table and a sizeable house my child can run around and play.

I am one heist from exposing multibillion dollar industries from lies they have been keeping from the public. My fortune is amassed from taking from the rich and and redistributing the wealth they did not deserve. My very own husband was a CEO that I needed secrets from. He was a means to my end. With his secrets leaked, I was able to wreck his company and leave him bankrupt.

Story #4

Prediction 2025: MTD treatment allows treatment of range of afflictions.

Prediction 2050: MTDoctor brand expands their treatments to include life-span extension. Allowing people to live longer.

My name is Jon Xorg and I am a rich person from a first world country. I was born in 2025 in a low income family in South America. At the age of eight I got Malaria. I don’t remember much but I do remember my parents arguing a lot. We were much too poor to receive treatment from the MTDoctors so my parents had a decision to make. They could watch their son die or try to give him away to someone richer. I wouldn’t be alive if they chose the first one, so you know what their decision must have been. I was eight, too old for any of the rich young couples to want me, so my parents made me take pills reversing the effects of HGH to make me look younger (we could barely afford it but it was my only chance to survive). Then one day, with my parents crying, people came to our house and whisked me away in their fancy air-conditioned car. They spoke a strange language that I didn’t understand and dressed me in clothes entirely devoid of color. When I got there I was given a very simple shot to take care of the malaria. That shot, in those five seconds, saved my life. My parents gave me up for that shot, and now I was stuck with the rich. I was instructed to learn from people who didn’t understand me or know my story. I lived the rest of my life in a cold, dark, very sterilized world, and now I want to go back. I want to go back to the lively vibrant culture and familiar people of my childhood. I want to go back home.