Human Practices ‘Thought Experiment’

Over the course of the summer, we have invested a lot of time into finding novel uses for synthetic biology. Throughout this process, we have been motivated by the exciting applications for our technology outside of the lab, ranging from self-healing circuitry to new methods of computation. With these in mind throughout our project, we have been trying to understand the societal context for our work. The knowledge we gained from this process has shaped the ultimate design of our system.

In our early discussions with stakeholders, such as our sixth form experience day, it became apparent that there were a lot of ethical and moral implications of our technology that caused people to feel uncomfortable about using it. For instance, concerns were raised over the environmental impact of taking our engineered bacteria out of the lab as we had originally envisaged. Since one of our aims is to ‘kick start’ a whole new research direction in synthetic biology we also talked to researchers in the field. They highlighted to us the clear tension between our educational goals, facilitating open access to data and new science, etc. and our ideas for the commercial implications of this technology.

It became apparent from these discussions alone that we needed some way of exploring these issues, be they social, economic, ethical or otherwise to their logical conclusion. When we discussed this challenge with staff from the Policy, Ethics and Life Sciences (PEALS) Research Centre at our university, we were introduced to the notion of a thought experiment and our human practices ‘simulator’ was born.

Dr Simon Woods from the PEALS Research Centre very kindly agreed to consult with us on the ethical issues surrounding our project and star as part of our thought experiment.
Dr Simon Woods from the PEALS Research Centre very kindly agreed to consult with us on the ethical issues surrounding our project and star as part of our thought experiment, explaining the concepts involved in each level.

Our simulator is a game designed to stimulate discussion on the consequences of using our technology, the interfacing of bacteria and electronics, in real world scenarios. As an educational tool, the simulator aims to guide the user to consider some uses of our technology and to think through the effects of its use. Rather than constrain our stakeholders through the use of surveys, where we question them on what we believe is important. We hope to establish a dialogue between our users and us so that together we can fully explore the implications of our work, adapt our designs appropriately, and thereby meet the iGEM aim of ‘building a safe and sustainable project that serves the public interest’.

We suggest that you read through the rest of this page, which outlines the background to using thought experiments for this purpose before giving the simulator a try for yourself.

What is a thought experiment anyway?

Thought experiments are ‘devices of the imagination used to investigate the nature of things’ (Brown and Fehige, 2016) and can be found throughout the sciences. Some, like Schrödinger's cat, have become famous in their own right, but they can be found in many fields related to iGEM: The infinite monkey theorem (mathematics), Levinthal’s paradox (biology) and the two Generals’ problem (computer science) to name but a few. You’ll see from considering the experiments above, that a thought experiment is set apart from any other type of research due to the impracticability, even impossibility, of performing a physical experiment to explore the same hypothesis.

'Schrodinger's Cat is probably the most famous thought experiment in history, examining quantum indeterminacy.
Schrodinger's Cat is probably the most famous thought experiment in history, examining quantum indeterminacy. [Image: Dhatfield, Wikipedia]

As we are a long way from beginning to see the potential technologies resulting from our project, thought experiments serve as an excellent medium for exploring them ‘before their time’. This sentiment was a major reason as to why we chose to pursue this approach in our human practices. We must also differentiate the thought experiment from simply logically reasoning about our hypothesised technologies. It is said that ‘something is experienced in a thought experiment’ (Brown and Fehige, 2016). Indeed from a philosophical standpoint, it is reasoned that we can use thought experiments to gain new knowledge about our world because of ‘instinctive knowledge’ (Sorensen, 1992). That is to say, that we must draw on the experience of our participants in constructing the experiment. We are only guides, the results their own.

It is precisely this ability of a thought experiment to allow participants to come to their own conclusions; that makes the thought experiment a useful tool for fully exploring the issues surrounding our project. Thus, extreme care was required during the experimental design phase to ensure that we allow participants to reach their own conclusions, and not merely guide them to what we think the answer should be. To do this, we set out to explore what makes a good thought experiment as well as existing interactive experiences that facilitate them.

Overview of the Culture Shock Thought Experiment?

Level One

The first level of the thought experiment requires the user to build bio-electrical circuitry using bacterial and electronic versions of batteries and bulbs. The user is able to adjust the voltage of a fuel cell, and once this reaches maximum voltage the bacteria in the bio-bulb die. This triggers a negative response from the 'E.coli activists'.

The inspiration behind this level, was based on the idea that currently synthetic biologists are very comfortable with using E. coli within experiments. Initially, we thought that our project may create a need for bacterial rights in the future, especially given that there are already standards set in place for electronics. We wanted to explore the idea of bacterial rights further and so arranged a second meeting with the Policy, Ethics and Life Sciences Research Centre. Dr Simon Woods suggested that it was more important to focus on respect for other lifeforms, particularly with regards to their use within modern technology.

Level Two

The second level involves the user using electrical and neuron wires to build rocket circuitry. The electrical wires break, and so the user is asked to replace them with neuron wires, due to their self-healing capability. Unfortunately, the bacteria cannot withstand the high temperatures, radiation and vibrations, and so the mission is failed. The main aim of this level is to allow the user to think about hypothetical applications of bio-electrical circuitry.

From the very start of the project, our team was excited by the prospect of self-healing circuitry in space-like conditions, as a consequence of interfacing biology and electronics. Originally we thought that the self healing capabilities of neurons would be ideal for repairing disrupted connections on the Mars mission, due to a lack of processed materials onboard. However, through further research and discussion, we realised that neurons may not be able to withstand these sorts of conditions.

Dr Simon Woods encouraged us to think of self healing circuitry in a different context. Although the mars mission is a viable use of our technology, he inspired us to consider the ways it could be used on earth. For instance, he asked us to think of more remote environments where access to resources is often more difficult. Although it may be a far off idea, a self healing drone, could be very useful for delivering resources to places where there are a lack of skilled engineers to repair them.

Level Three

This level involves connecting different fuel cells to a wind turbine, to help move the blades on a less windy day. The user progresses from binning a fuel cell containing E. coli, to a fuel cell containing insect cells, and finally a fuel cell containing cat tissue. The main purpose of this level is to engage the user in how far they are willing to go with regards to the use of cells and their disposal.

Back in July, our team ran two sixth former's days to teach prospective students more about synthetic biology and give us the opportunity to discuss our project and for them to plan their own iGEM project. When, we asked them what they thought about using E. coli within synthetic biology, all of them were fine about it. However, when we suggested using insect and later mammalian cells, some students were less comfortable with the idea. This illustrated a grey area that surrounds the ethical use of cells and the value of bacterial life, and we felt it was important for the user to consider this through our thought experiment.

For many of the sixth former's, their stance depended on the application of the cells. For instance, one group of students presented an idea on the engineering of a single pill, which would combat kidney failure. Most of their peers liked this idea because it was for the benefit of humanity. However, when another team decided that they didn’t like the smell of dogs, and wanted to engineer dogs to produce more pleasant smells, it was less well received. This got us thinking how and if we can determine whether or not the impacts of our project would be for the greater good, and how we could improve our project to consider the potential implications. To find out more about how altered the design of our fuel cell based on the use of cells, read more here.

Level Four

The final level of our simulator explores the security of bio-electrical circuitry. To do this, we have demonstrated how the Edinburgh iGEM 2016 Babbled system (which stores data in DNA) encrypts information, specifically a user's name. Upon completion of the level, the user's name is intercepted by 'E. coli activists'.

In a typical computer, the memory cell is an electronic circuit used to store data in the form of binary. Together with Edinburgh, we imagined replacing this circuitry with the babbled system, to further enhance the foundation of electro-biological circuitry which would allow more bits of data to be stored, vastly increasing storage density.

We soon realised that this would not be without its difficulties - the security of electro-biological circuitry would be crucial, and so encryption would be needed to prevent the hacking of sensitive data such as bank details or phone numbers, for example. From here, we worked with Edinburgh to examine the ideas surrounding security and simulate the factors which would need to be considered in the future. This is discussed in a short video at the end of level four.


Brown, James Robert and Fehige, Yiftach, "Thought Experiments", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

Sorensen, Roy A., 1992, Thought Experiments, Oxford: Oxford University Press.