Bacteria, fungus and decomposition.
Doesn’t sound like a great start for a technology blog. But last week I was fortunate to visit a lab in Utrecht University where rather unsurprisingly I learned a lot about decomposition, fungus and how to grow innovative new materials.
A young Italian designer runs the lab, this is him above, working on the border between art and biology. His name is Maurizio Montalti, founder of the “Officina Corpuscoli” in Amsterdam (2010), whose goal is not only to produce beautiful artifacts, but to stimulate thought about the central aspects of design (above all the use of materials) and to provoke questions about much more. The nature of humans (the relationship between life and death) or the nature of progress and its relationship to the world and its ecosystem.
The lab is the point of departure. Here he showed me different materials with different properties, all grown from fungi. Some is like plastic, can be transparent and in sheet form, and others look and feel a bit like skin, some looks like polystyrene.
The choice of materials is central to the idea of the project. The materials that are currently favoured in design such as plastic, foam and metals, are produced using industrial processes that are detrimental to the environment. Maurizio wanted to raise this issue for discussion, and so he began his fungus interest.
For the designer the beauty and fascination for fungus lies in its role in nature. He told me that fungi are everywhere, in the soil and in the air, but we associate them with revulsion, disgust and danger, and we minimize their importance, whereas in fact they are fundamental for decomposition, transformation and recycling. He is interested in its role as re-cycler of biological materials.
And the holy grail: the System Synthetics project, turning plastic waste into energy. Maurizio was interested in crossing fungal capacities to degrade with that of yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, forcing them into symbiosos, to create a microorganism able to decompose plastic materials and give back energy in liquid form (bioethonol produced by the yeast). It is a synthetic biology program whose objective is to provoke questions about the potentials and implications for this discipline (very much a work in progress, whose aim is to involve a wider public in the synthetic biology debate).
I would like to add that Maurizio is part of an informal network of “fungicites”, here find an article of a start up in the USA that is producing bricks from bacteria, cutting out the clay and baking process and making it a much more sustainable product.
Read more about Maurizio here, including photos and an interview.
In my work I write about nanotechnology and synthetic biology and over the next couple of weeks I would like to describe what is happening in these high technology fields. I start with synthetic biology. I am not a scientist and cannot give any form of technical description of how they do what they do. I can present a kind of sketch though of what they are doing and their aims.
The first question then must be what is synthetic biology? Well it is something that can be described as engineering, biology, genetics or nanotechnology, the most common description is that of applying the concept of engineering to biological organisms. But what does that actually mean?
Well, synthetic biology aims to design and engineer biologically based parts, novel devices and systems as well as redesigning existing, natural biological systems. Practitioners use a systems approach, an organism is seen as a whole, or a system, and can therefore be engineered, very much like a machine.
The system is reduced to biological parts (bioparts) whose function is expressed in terms of input/output characteristics. Once these parts have been described in terms of their function, isolated, standardised and syntheticaly reproduced, they can then be combined to from new organisms, very much in the way that an engineer would build a machine using standard devices built from standard parts. It is just that they are parts of a living organism.
These standard parts are defined by their DNA, and this can be manipulated in order to make the perfect part for the perfect device. Parts of the DNA can be removed and synthetic pieces used to replace them. Create the right part that does the right job, put in it a carrier cell (known as chassis) and Bob’s your Uncle, you can start to construct your organism.
The Biobricks Foundation is a not for profit organization that aims to keep a register of these standard parts, maintaining open access and promoting technical standardization, something that is seen as holding the key to the further development of synthetic biology.
Obviously to do all of the above you require technical expertise, the process requires computational modeling in order to analyze the complexities of biological entities and to predict system performance. You require DNA sequencing in order to describe the genome and then of course DNA synthesis, to re-produce either part of or the entire genome itself.
But what are the potential areas of application for this technology, and what can they actually do now?
One of the main fields is undoubtedly medicine. Drugs can be produced that are more effective or have fewer or even no side effects, as the genomes of their active components can be adjusted and synthesized. An example is the development of a synthetic version of the anti-malarial drug Artermisinin that could be industrially and cheaply mass produced, and in the near future antibiotics could become much more efficient.
Another existing application is water that changes colour when in contact with different polluting agents making them instantly recognizable. Switches already exist that react to certain types of input. An example could be a cell that is part of a person’s body that reacts to the stimulus of a certain chemical that in turn stimulates the production of another. Imagine for example a device that reacts to a chemical produced by a cancerous cell. This input causes a reaction that produces another chemical to counteract this presence. All working naturally using the body’s energy to function.
Other developments involve the energy sector, the production of plants for bio mass that are not as wasteful as those used today and even the development of synthetic aviation fuels.
In other fields a synthetic form of the silk produced by the Golden Orb spider is under development. This is an extremely strong, fine and lightweight material that could lead the way towards new specialist engineering materials.
Well this is nothing but reasonable, my memory lives in my brain and the memory of my ancestors in my DNA, and now they have the technology to read it and even change it, so why not use it in a computer?
I have written several articles on this and other related topics on the Bassetti Foundation website, and as I said I am no scientist, so all comments and criticism invited and accepted.