An interview with MIT biologist David Sun Kong—on science, activism, and how biotechnology can empower ordinary people.
When you ask people who know synthetic biologist and community activist David Sun Kong what stands out in their minds about the thirty-something-year-old MIT professor and community activist, you get enthusiastic answers touching on everything from his research expertise to his Renaissance-man appeal. But one thing is clear: His influence is felt far beyond the confines of his own laboratory.
Professionally, Kong is a pioneer in microfluidics, a multidisciplinary field that seeks to study, manipulate, and control streams of liquid in channels so tiny you’d be hard pressed threading a human hair through one. As a DJ, musician, photographer, writer, motivational speaker, and animator, his work often crosses boundaries. One example is Biota Beats, a microbial “record player” that translates the composition of the body microbiome into sound and music.
“Kong is promoting initiatives that pull together many fields of research, art, biotech, physics, chemistry, music, AI,” says Jeb Su, a chief analyst at Atherton Research, a high-tech boutique research group based in Silicon Valley. “It is not unreasonable to think that from their interaction may emerge innovations that will have a long-lasting impact.”
A former community organizer, Kong is also bent on democratizing bioscience. He is the director of MIT Media Lab’s Community Biotechnology Initiative, and he founded both the Global Community Bio Summit and the (currently closed) EMW bookstore and community center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Through these projects, Kong is putting the tools of advanced synthetic biology into the hands of ordinary people around the world.
“I first met Kong at a Biodesign Challenge back in 2019,” recounts Corinne Okada Takara, founder of the community bioart project Nest. “That was just so transformational for all of us because we didn’t realize that there was this global conversation with people coming from all around the world who run community biolabs, a community we were a part of and that we didn’t know.”
Though there isn’t an official census, a 2019 EMBO report estimates that more than 300 community bioscience labs exist worldwide.
“The field is moving very quickly, and there are all these new tools being developed. Having an accessible forum for people to understand what is possible in biology is very valuable,” says Trevor Martin, CEO of Mammoth Bioscience—a synthetic biology startup specializing in CRISPR technologies.
Proto.life caught up with Kong recently to ask him about open-source science, community biolabs, and how biotechnology could empower ordinary people.
proto.life: What does it mean to empower citizens through biotechnology?
DAVID SUN KONG: I think one of the big questions with the future of the life sciences, synthetic biology, and biotechnology is agency, participation and, ultimately, who has the power to shape the future agenda. Historically in science and technology, a privileged sector of society eventually shapes how these technologies are developed and used. I think there’s a fundamental question from the justice and morality perspective around who’s at the decision table, essentially, and who’s ultimately able to participate. A considerable part of my work is about expanding that participation and agency to as many diverse communities as possible worldwide, particularly communities that aren’t traditionally part of the decision-making process.
A student built a system that allows you to do sophisticated DNA electroporation, using a flyswatter.
OK, but how would you empower those communities?
There are three core components. One part is technical. One part is related to tools and capabilities. Part of what my lab does is focus on developing very low-cost, open-source, and accessible technologies. To give one example, we’ve been working on a Zap-pore project, an ultra-low-cost DNA electroporator. This system, typically found in laboratories, costs thousands of dollars. Researchers use it to create a voltage that enables the cell pores to open so that exogenous DNA can then move to the inside. Usually, this is a costly tool, but it’s a very foundational tool in synthetic biology and life sciences in general. A student, Teja Jammalamadaka, built a system that allows you to do sophisticated DNA electroporation, using a flyswatter as a voltage source. He essentially built an open-source system so that anybody, using some simple and widely accessible tools, can make their DNA electroporator for around $10.
Sounds like we’re dealing with more than just a mere cost reduction.
Correct. He developed a low-cost, open-source solution that wasn’t part of the regular supply chain. That chain tends to be Western focused. If you’re in some part of Africa or Latin America, you are likely not connected to it. But now, you can make your lab equipment without being a part of the existing infrastructure. Essentially, we’ve lowered the barrier and made it more accessible for people to participate. Metafluidics is an example of an open-source repository where you can upload the device designs for all kinds of fluidics systems, from diagnostic devices to devices for PCR, assembling DNA, or cell culture.
That was one component of empowering communities. What are the others?
The second is accessible knowledge. I teach a couple of very relevant classes—one called, “How to Grow (Almost) Anything.” It’s a class I’ve been teaching for about six years with Professor George Church from Harvard. It explores synthetic biology across the full breadth of the discipline. Every week, we have classes on different topics, like protein design, DNA design, reading, writing, and editing. In the past, we’ve even had ecosystem engineering. Around the 13th or 14th week, the student develops enough capabilities to “grow” almost anything. By the end, students are doing projects like wearable microfluidics bioreactors that could be used in space to produce molecules on demand. Students have also made systems like microfluid glazing for architectural purposes. You might have an engineered organism that could change color or respond to stimuli and embed it within a building. The other thing about the class is that the students don’t need any prior experience. So, we have students joining the course who are artists, designers, and enthusiasts from all backgrounds.
What sort of future do you imagine for synthetic biology?
My work has focused on the community context instead of the industrial or academic context. I have organized the Global Community Bio Summit for the past five years. This flagship event brings together the global network of community biology labs. Folks are setting up these laboratories worldwide to engage their local community. [They’re] teaching life sciences in their local communities and creating spaces where those community members can learn and work on projects together. A huge aspect of my work is movement building and social justice. What are our values? What is our shared purpose? What are our ethics and norms through which we treat each other? Our goal has been to try to make those implicit aspects explicit.
Can you provide an example?
We worked closely with Dr. Marshall [Gantz] from Harvard. Marshall was a legendary community organizer when he was in college. He dropped out to work with Martin Luther King Jr. in Mississippi—later worked with Obama’s campaign in 2008 and 2012. Since the first year, Marshall has been a big part of the Bio Summit. I brought Marshall in intentionally to bring movement-building strategy and tactics to the community biology movement. And by getting Marshall in, our global community started thinking about our shared purpose. During the second year of the Bio Summit, we conducted a large-scale exercise where we articulated our shared goal of fundamentally transforming life sciences and democratizing technology to inspire creativity and improve lives by organizing lifelines, change-makers, and bio enthusiasts to build an inclusive global network, cultivate an accessible commons of knowledge and resources, launch community lesson projects, and enable local educators. That statement of shared purpose was developed with Marshall’s guidance.
It isn’t just about the technical knowledge and the tools themselves. It is the community context within which those technologies and those tools are developed. I think they need to work synergistically. To say it candidly, I’m an academic, and ethics is often a very low priority. I think it should be emphasized much more in graduate school.
You are familiar, of course, with the saying “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” So how do you avoid the wonderful dreams of today becoming the awful nightmares of tomorrow in synthetic biology?
That’s why I think that the community contract that I was describing [is] so critically important. If you’re a part of the Bio Summit or taking “How to Grow Almost Anything,” you’re participating in life sciences in the context of a community. You want to work with colleagues and peers [who] are part of a larger context with an established set of ethics and culture. And thus, there’s the biological culture, like what we do in the lab. And then there’s the culture of the human community that’s engaging in the work—it’s not emphasized nearly enough. And so that’s why so much of the movement-building work that we emphasize is around values, worldview, ethics, and shared purpose. Those aspects help minimize the likelihood that something nefarious or evil would happen. So, for example, I teach another course called “Ancient Future Technology” where we deeply value the worldview of indigenous communities. So, it’s not science happening in a vacuum, in an arbitrary context. In our case, it’s science occurring in the context of people trying to change the world for the better. Those different contexts ultimately impact the type of technology developed and how it gets used.
What’s the interplay between synthetic biology and human biology?
I think the history of synthetic biology in its 10–15 years of existence has been mainly commercial and industrial. It has been focused on leveraging and trading organisms and molecular compounds that can be sold in the marketplace and are helpful for humans. I think the future of synthetic biology and my hope for its future is where humans are not at the center—but nature and the ecosystems. So, my actual vision and hope for synthetic biology are that it can help fundamentally transform our relationship with nature so that our tools and technologies are used in ways that ultimately have a profound benefit for our ecosystems and can help establish a more mutualistic relationship with nature.
Can you provide an example?
Yes. There’s a project I’ve been working on in collaboration with an organization called Revive and Restore. They use biology for conservation applications. Their goal is to leverage a suite of natural tools in various contexts to help address our climate crisis. Some more extreme examples are popularized in the press, such as [reversing] extinction. So, for example, the project that’s probably the most powerful is trying to bring back the American chestnut tree and the passenger pigeon.
How do you see synthetic biology contributing to human progress?
One thing we found that was beautiful: A lot of the music that we created initially, and still to this day, is connected to young people. We collaborated with DJ Jazzy Jeff, a legendary icon in hip hop. “We’ve been learning that the microbiome changes under different periods of stress. So what if we made a ‘biota beats’ of Jeff? You know, [sampling his microbiome] before he went on tour, after tour, and then during the tour and then saw how the music changed,” proposed his manager. And to me, that was such a beautiful moment because these are not scientists, but they had learned enough about the music and the research around the microbiome to connect it with art. So synthetic biology becomes an incredible vehicle through which the general population or people who are not scientifically inclined can suddenly develop empathy and compassion and a deeper understanding of an invisible world where humans have a relationship with the microbial world.
Any final thoughts?
I’ve been working quite a bit on the future of health, trying to define a new field of public health technology with rear admiral Dr. Susan Blumethal, who served under four presidential administrations and previously was the assistant surgeon general. The idea is to bring the multidisciplinary concept that I’ve been describing to public health so that folks working in that sector ideally are not just public health experts but also technologists, designers, science communicators, artists, economists, and other operators. The pandemic has revealed that too many of our disciplines are siloed, which prevents technologies that can have a significant impact from manifesting their global effects in the world.
Editor’s note: This story was updated on April 9, 2022 to reflect in the fourth paragraph that Kong is a former community organizer.