How can we grow a better future?
The Inaugural BIOFABRICATE Summit that took place on December 4th, 2014 was the first event to focus on commercial, artistic and research the disruptive technologies that comprise the emerging field of grown materials.
The summit was masterminded Suzanne Lee, the director of the Biocouture research project (whose TED talk bio describes as a “fashion designer turned biological conjurer”), in partnership with synthetic biology community leader SynBioBeta.
Grow Your Own Clothes
In Suzanne’s March 2011 TED talk “Grow Your Own Clothes” she described her experimental “fabric farm” where she grew kombucha-based materials that she fashioned into designer garments—a prelude to a world in which we grow what we need without producing chemical waste, then biodegrade the items after use.
BIOFABRICATE extended the vision captured in Suzanne’s talk, bringing together a diverse group of leading programmable material research scientists, textile designers, DIY bio enthusiasts and synthetic biology entrepreneurs focused on how biotechnology is growing a new material revolution. The summit was organized around the themes of Engineering Nature, Designer Organisms, Cultured Technology and Fashioning Biology and featured a pop-up DIYBio lab in partnership with Genspace (the first community DIY bio lab). In addition, there were a plethora of grown exhibits from host of designers that crammed all the available space in the wing of Microsoft’s Technology Center, where the conference was held.
There was so much going on that I can only provide a small sampling of the event here, but the caliber of both speakers and attendees was astounding.
If you missed BIOFABRICATE, you missed out. In fact, there were so many fascinating folks at the event that I only had the chance to interview a few, because you couldn’t walk five feet without running into someone fascinating at this sold-out summit. Here’s what else I learned and saw.
Microalgae Textile Dyes
Berlin duo Blond and Beiber’s project that uses microalgae to create colourful dyes for textile printing. According to this Deezen article, they’ve developed an analog algae printer that enables them to develop their own textile dyes.
Microsoft Research AIRs
I was pleasantly surprised to see Microsoft Research getting into biofabrication and hosting visiting artists.
Although Erin Smith’s other creations include a wedding dress out of fungus, her work at Microsoft Research focused on the intersection of bio and wearable computing to create speculative designs, like a cancer fighting necklace made from medical Mycelium, shown above.
Nurit Barshai’s “Objectivity [tentative] explores the intersection of Art, Science and Technology. Using various settings to visualize the “chemical tweets” of microorganisms as exceptionally beautiful and rare image patterns.”
Bacteria Dyed Textiles
Natsai Audrey’s “Faber Futures: The Fold” project focuses on, “the relationship between material and process is explored in this series of experimental bacterial prints grown on silk scarves. Driven by the tension between precise laboratory protocol and the creative tendency that often employes an intuitive approach, textile manipulation vis-à-vis The Fold becomes key to developing a new aesthetic language.”
Danielle Trofe runs a Brooklyn-based design studio that “promotes a function-forward, sustainable and socially responsible approach to furniture and lighting design.” Here’s some pics of her exhibit at BIOFABRICATE.
Check out how her fully-grown Mush-Lum lighting collection is made:
Danielle also mentioned that she’s a big fan of Make: magazine and Maker Faire. In addition, she turned me on to the totally awesome GIY (Grow-It-Yourself) program launched last month by the biomaterial packaging company Ecovative. They’ve created kits that enable you to grow your own creations out of mushrooms. Get involved and get growing!
More Mycelium Madness
Officina Corpuscoli’s “‘The Growing Lab’ is an ongoing, long-term, self-initiated research-project, actively engaging with exploring and assessing methodologies for the implementation of Mycelium, as a main agent for the development of novel materials and processes.”
While ‘Mycelium Design’ is an on-going, long-term research-project, initiated by Officina Corpuscoli, together with partners such as Utrecht Universiteit and Mediamatic. The project seeks to study and analyse the mechanisms underlying structural and decorative properties of the mycelium as well as their improvement, while exploring and assessing natural variations, environmental growth conditions and genetic qualities of the selected mycelia, aiming to identify tailor-made mycelia for use as building blocks or as both structural and decorative material.
Phill Ross is the founder of Mycoworks, a company that creates sustainable design solutions with mycelium building materials that they are being developed as a,
“natural alternative to engineered wood, cork, and synthetic plastics meets advanced material needs, using a process that is more energy efficient than conventional manufacturing… sturdy, lightweight products from strong, organic fibers that are formed into custom shapes, including panels and tiles for furniture, cabinetry, and interiors.”
At BIOFABRICATE, Ross displayed a set of interlocking, living mushroom bricks “that can be assembled and configured into almost any form, and naturally weld into a single object when set together.” These “fungal-polyominoes” are the building blocks of what he calls “mycotecture“. For more building block pics, check out his site, The Biotechnique of Phill Ross.
I serendipitously caught up with Carlos Olguin and Skylar Tibbits at the same time and we had a very interesting conversation about “state machines” (more on that later). Olguin is the Head of Autodesk’s Bio/Nano/ Programmable Matter Group, while Tibbits is famous for his 4D printing and programmable materials research at MIT’s cross-disciplinary Self-Assembly Lab. They are also both active participants Autodesk’s Project Cyborg, which Tibbits used to simulate and optimize his 4D printing folding sequences and geometric transformations.
When the programmable matter movement first got underway, everyone was focused on everyone was doing robotics, often large reconfigurable robots. Now most researchers have moved into materials based robotics – like Saul Griffith’s inflatables, jammables, 4D programmable materials, synbio. The focus is now on, “How do we activate materials to have the same functionality that we had in logic sensing actuation, but in much more flexible, agile, softer, goods.“
So What Is Project Cyborg?
Autodesk Research describes it this way:
Project Cyborg is a cloud-based meta-platform of design tools for programming matter across domains and scales. Project Cyborg provides elastic cloud-based computation in a web-based CAD shell for services such as modeling, simulation and multi-objective design optimization. Researchers, developers, students and citizen scientists can use these tools to advance their own projects and, if they choose, share their work with others and even use Project Cyborg as a marketplace. Cyborg allows individuals or groups to create specialized design platforms specific for their domains, whatever their domains happen to be, from nanoparticle design to tissue engineering, to self-assembling human-scale manufacturing. (emphasis mine)
Pattern and Behavior Libraries
I mentioned that this approach sounded a bit like the programmable matter / synth bio version of Autodesk’s Spark platform and asked about the openness of the Project Cyborg platform. Carlos Olguin’s response was extremely interesting. He said, “We want to comototize everything but design.” Meaning, the designs and applications that Autodesk builds provide economic value as a platform.
Cyborg is partially open and focused on scientific research. An internal team is maintaining a body of code, but offering an API of sorts for collaborators to extend the platform for their own needs and research interests by creating new nodes in the pattern library. Each node creator will have the ability to keep their code contribution open or closed, but others can access the results of their research, if not their algorithms.
There are economic aspects at play that necessitate some secrecy and could complicate things a bit. The projects material sponsors, for example, won’t want their materials code to be open. However, conceptually the platform is open and if interested, you should head over to Cyborg and apply to be a user researcher so you can check out Skyler’s applications, extend and repurpose them.
Eventually the conversation wound back to Spark and Ember, which I mentioned had taken me a bit by surprise, because Autodesk (until recently) didn’t do hardware. To which both Carlos and Skyler responded, that Autodesk was now doing both hardware – and wetware – as they were going to be hacking an ember for some upcoming bioprinting work.
New Programmable Materials
This October, the Self-Assembly Lab released several new types of programmable materials that were created using the Cyborg platform: carbon fiber, textiles, wood and more are in the works.
Self-Assembly Lab, MIT + Carbitex LLC + Autodesk Inc.
Working closely with Carbitex, an advanced materials company with a radical new flexible carbon fiber technology, CX6™, we have developed a system to produce programmable carbon fiber material that can fold, curl, twist and respond to a variety of activation energies. By printing various materials within the flexible carbon fiber grain, we are able to promote local curvature when subject to heat, light or moisture. Programmable carbon fiber enables a wide range of applications from morphable airplane flaps to self-regulating air intake valves, adaptive aerodynamics, tunable stiffness structures and a variety of other dynamic applications. These capabilities were previously impossible or required expansive and complex robotics but are now feasible through programmable material transformations.
Tibbits referred to these new materials as, “4D printing for real world materials”.
Self-Assembly Lab, MIT + Christophe Guberan + Erik Demaine + Autodesk Inc.
Custom wood grain designed and printed to promote active transformation when subject to moisture. Different patterns of grain direction, thickness and material combinations were explored to promote precise transformation.
In addition, he mentioned a method of printing DNA printing proteins on nitrocellouse paper that acts as a “graphic sensor” or what the MIT collaborative effort that produced the project dubbed DNA disPLAY, released in 2013 .
The aim was to allow anyone to design and print with DNA, eliminating the expensive and difficult step of DNA imaging and opening up the possibilities of biological printing for architectural surfaces. Proteins were CNC-printed on nitrocellulose paper and then washed with DNA and gold nanoparticles to reveal custom patterns.
The discussion turned philosophical at this point and we began to speculate on the future of programmable materials, the phrase “state machine” kept coming up. Since Cyborg is focused on building a suite of different materials with programed shape changing behaviors: folding, stretching, shrinking, curling, twisting, hardness, softness and appearance.
Self-Assembly Lab, MIT + Christophe Guberan + Erik Demaine + Autodesk Inc.
I asked if this was biological-computing. Tibbits pondered the question, mulling over if this was computing or just embedded fixed programs in materials that execute those programs. It was hypothesized that if a materials module responded to a particular energy sources (heat, light, moisture, etc) that superimposing the two could trigger the programmed function. Something like a synth bio FPGA (field-programmable gate array), so state machine seemed accurate.
There was so much more, but I’ll leave it there and move on the the next topic.
Designer Organisms & Cultured Technology
My second (and last) informal interview of the day also involved two participants. I ran into both Patrick Boyle, Organism Designer for Ginkgo Bioworks and Artist/Scientist Koert van Mensvoort of NextNature. I wish I had time to transcribe our fascinating entire hour-long conversation (I don’t), but here are the highlights…
NextNature’s Design Fictions
Koert van Mensvoort works a the interesting grey area of “Design Fiction”. Design Fiction is not meant to be predictive of the future. Instead, it explores new perspectives of the world as it is today – “a technological environment has become so complex, omnipresent and autonomous that it is best perceived as a nature of its own” – and that that the exploration of these new perspectives will help us to steer toward a better future.
Mensvoort’s site describes Design Fiction this way:
We often sleepwalk behind technology as it whizzes forward. Design fiction offers an opportunity to be better prepared for what will come. Imaginative experiments in the border area between art and science make the future convincingly tangible.
Mensvoort and his nonprofit NextNature Network foundation work in the hybrid space between tech art and philosophy. They actually materialize philosophy – and not merely in words.
They are a team of designers that actually produce fictional products like “The In Vitro Meat Cookbook (comprised of “45 grown meat recipes you cannot cook yet”), which you can actually purchase. Then there are and provocative items like “Honest Eggs” where the “color of each egg provides information on animal welfare, as well as how healthy the egg is for you … how much time did the chicken spend outside?”, which are art/conversation pieces only. NextNature displayed some of these materialized design fictions at BIOFABRICATE, as can see in the slideshow above.
One of the more elaborate design fictions created by NextNature was “Rayfish Footwear“. A storytelling project that featured custom sneakers made from stingrays that had been genetically modified to grow customer selected patterns on their skin. They orchestrated a full campaign, complete with a website, consumer reactions to their custom sneaker orders and actual (although faux) rayfish shoes.
For Mensvoort, these creations are a sort of “public brainstorming” orchestrated to force us to rethink our notion of nature. He wants to draw attention to the “problematic image of nature as it is out there today. Everyone wants to restore the balance of nature, save nature, even”.
He feels that the urge to “save nature” or “get back to nature” is naive and that it’s hindering humanity’s ability to steer towards a future that helps us solve issues like deforestation, decreasing biodiversity and global warming. The solution? Mensvoort wants us to rethink our notion of nature, “Many want to save nature, but not many want to think about what is our image of nature and how is that constructed?
His goals are very different from the WWF or Greenpeace, who “do good stuff, but present themselves as progressive organizations, but their notion of nature is deeply conservative, going back to this vision of nature before humans spoiled everything. It’s not going to be helpful in the 21st century.”.
Designing Organisms: Cultured Roses
What can you build with biology? How does synth bio different than regular bio? These were some of the questions I had for Patrick Boyle an Organism Designer working at Ginkgo Bioworks.
Boyle answered by stating that:
Regular bio doesn’t goof around with specific substrates. Regular bio wants to learn everything they can about a specific organism. At Ginkgo, when we’re designing organisms for customers. It really becomes, what’s the best organism for the job? Where should I start? Biology is great – you have 4 billion years of evolution that has done a lot of this experimentation for us. I go out and find something that is very close to what I want, learn as much as I can about it , then push it in the direction that I need it to go to produce this specific project.
Ginkgo Bioworks is working on many different projects, from cultured ingredients to carbon mitigation to probiotics and natural product discovery. Boyle couldn’t tell me all the details of what Ginkgo is working on, but he was able to to discuss their work with roses as cultured ingredients.
During our talk, Boyle related that roses have been in fragrances and perfumes for over 1,000 years. Currently they are working with one of the oldest French fragrance houses who has perfected extraction of essential oils. From a commercial standpoint, this partnership was a natural fit, as the synthetic bio products that make the most sense for a company like Ginkgo Bioworks are low volume and high margin. They partner with companies that can take on production, so they don’t need to build their own factory.
So why is the cultured rose is interesting? Because it addresses a core question: What can biology do that’s better than chemistry? “Perfumers are very good chemists, they have to be good chemists, but there is not enough rose oil to go around and chemists can’t customize rose fragrance”. Ginkgo Bioworks synthetic bio cultured roses now allow the full sensory experience to be tailored by a perfumer. Read more about the process it in this recent article in Perfumer and Flavorist Magazine.
There Was So Much More…
I couldn’t interview everyone or see it all. For more details on the rest of the fascinating researchers, artists, architects and materials companies that are growing the future, check out the BIOFABRICATE speaker list.