Elizabeth Marley is a design instructor, architect and artist who enjoys making participatory public art, collaborative biodesign adventures, and creative citizen science…just to name a few things at the top of her list. She is a lecturer at UC Davis. Elizabeth will be speaking on this topic on the Make: Stage on Sunday at Maker Faire Bay Area. I interviewed her earlier this week.
Dale: Tell us about this topic of biofabrication. We have digital fabrication, now we have biofabrication.
Elizabeth: Yeah, it’s a pretty exciting field. Ultimately biofabrication is fabrication that uses biological materials in some form or fashion, and so a lot of folks are already fabricating with some biomaterials if their filament in their 3D printer is made with the bioplastic version. That’s usually made from algae or seaweed and so there’s already a little bit of that kind of interspersed, but biofabrication looks at, or uses biomaterial to fabricate. It spans, I want to say ,all disciplines, everything from fashion textiles to architectural products There’s a lot of different scales in which biomaterials can be used. In biofabrication, people are making use of these biomaterials for their projects.
Typically the organisms that are used in biofabricated materials, biologically based in general, include bacteria, yeast, and mycelium, but there’s other things that are starting to be brought into the mix. For the presentation on Sunday, I’m going to be focusing on the mycelium, the fungi. We’ll look at some examples of that.
Dale: Does biofabrication touch on synthetic biology at all?
Elizabeth: There’s a branch. So you’ve got biofabrication, and then under that you have biosynthetic materials that are genetically engineered.
Oftentimes something else is brought into the mix and it’s manipulated in some way to be stronger or have certain particular material qualities to work well for the project that it’s being applied to. There’s more that’s like the craft, just straight up growing and using materials as is and not manipulating it in any sort of bioengineering or biosynthetic way.
Dale: So that’s what you’re doing with mushrooms, right?
Elizabeth: Definitely not bioengineering or genetically engineering anything with mushrooms. That is something that is done, however; there’s some companies that have developed Mycelium based products that are able to be used again in fashion, for example, where it’s called mycoleather that just has some properties to it that make it more durable.
But when I’m talking about, say, growing mycelium or fungi in the G. I. Y. movement, the Grow It Yourself movement, that’s a little bit more. A lot more accessible, a little bit more grassroots, but you’re you’re able to achieve some of the same stuff.
Dale: I love the term GIY. and is it DIY. But is it like cooking? You could do it at home.
Elizabeth: Yeah, that’s part of why I find it really exciting and part of how I even got into it was, yeah, absolutely, people can do it from home. If you have kitchen and a little bit of space, maybe some space in a closet to put stuff away for a few weeks or maybe even longer to grow your set. Basic kitchen equipment is typically all you need.
Dale: Is it like fermenting and drying, where you need some equipment to do that.
Elizabeth: There’s a little bit of a caveat. There are labs in which you can do some of this stuff. The space that we have at Davis is not a big fancy lab or anything. It’s pretty basic. And if the things that people have in their kitchens that could more or less do the same thing would be a pressure cooker or ways to sterilize the substrate, the material that the mycelium or the mushrooms will grow in. Even then sometimes folks don’t have that equipment because if you don’t already have a pressure cooker or a way to sterilize, basically boil or heat a lot of the bad bacteria out in order to have a healthy environment for the things that you want to grow, then you can just buy the stuff already made.
So there’s a lot of companies that. They provide the mushroom cultivation materials and equipment so you can skip that sterilization process and then start growing, pick out the species you want to grow, get the spores and have fun with it. It’s good to be able to use a stainless steel tools, spoons and measuring cups and stuff like that.
Elizabeth: I will go into more in the presentation on Sunday.
We’ve got a a small group in Davis called the Hyphea Collective where we pass out little small kits for folks that are just made from upcycled Tupperware containers. It doesn’t have to be fancy at all and it can be very affordable.
Dale: So in some ways, rather than working to prepare food, it’s more preparing materials for applications. Can you talk about?
Elizabeth: The cool thing about biomaterials that you’re doing growing from home is that a lot of them are edible. A lot of them are from food that we eat. One of the most friendly mushrooms to grow in which the mycelium part of it is what’s typically used for the biomaterial is oyster mushrooms. Oyster mushrooms are the species that are chosen for growing in the Grow It Yourself projects because they’re just so easy to grow. They’re not picky.
Something that I was thinking about while we were talking abouty “do it yourself” from home is like interspecies collaboration. You are working with other living organisms. So even when we’re working with other humans, it’s not always particularly easy. When it comes to other species, we’re not just working with different personalities. We’re working with different living conditions that they need in order to stay alive or thrive and get the project done. Being able to grow living organisms and do that sort of stuff requires being sensitive to the nutrients that it needs to grow, so you got to feed it the right stuff.
You have to make sure that it’s in the right environment, the right living conditions. It’s not too hot and not too cold. There’s a bunch of other little factors that can be managed or balanced, but oyster mushrooms are the least picky of the various fungi.
Dale: What are some projects, whether experimental projects that you’re doing or projects that you’ve seen other people do?
Elizabeth: There’s one that really set the stage many years ago at PS1 the annual architectural project that’s done in New York. They did a pavilion out of mycelium building blocks, building bricks.
That’s an example that I show my students about how you can scale up. You can do building materials. LD Lazaro, who is a UC Davis alumni, was working with growing breadboards from the mycelium and the substrate. She was working with ways of making circuitry. Instead of having the plastic and other materials that are less compostable and biodegradable, she was creating boards in which LEDs and other things could be added for DIY electronics projects. One of the reasons why that’s a great project is because it really starts to comment on even the small-scale materials that we use for the other projects that are used.
Its material that is compostable, a microcomposite is typically what’s called mycelium composite. Mycelium is the fine white hypha that grows under the soil where the fungi are — it’s an underground network. When we focus on growing that very particular white material, that’s what becomes the sort of gold material for biofabrication when working with fungi.
It’s particularly useful, not only in being more environmentally friendly and that it’s not going to sit in the landfill for a long time when it’s not in use, but it’s also heat resistant and water resistant. So it has these other material properties that are similar to plastics. So the tech stuff that we could use, it’s not going to be as detrimental to the environment long term.
Dale: Tell us just a little bit about yourself. How did you get into this?
Elizabeth: My background’s architecture. So I got into this when I was younger, observing how things were made and not being satisfied with the quality or the impact of using a lot of the materials that are out there. Over the years, I was learning about materials that are used every day, but yet they produce a lot of waste. Environmental contamination is something that motivated me to look into how can we create materials that we use every day in our everyday products, in our cars, in the clothes that we wear and the buildings that we occupy, how can we have materials that our better for the environment . So I pursued an idea that explored growing materials and potentially buildings.
Now, I work more on product design level these days, looking for products that actually help clean the environment. Fungi is really awesome at that. We have oil spills that happen more and more. One of the things that has been used in the past to help clean up those oil spills is to inoculate the coconut coir or these baffles that hold the spores and sometimes they might have beneficial bacteria. Basically certain mushrooms will break down the hydrocarbons of the oil, which is pretty cool, meaning it will eat the oil; it will eat that petroleum product and turn it into something completely harmless, As far as I know, fungi are the only beings or living things that can actually do that. It breaks oil down and then it’s no longer harmful.
Dale: Good. I think that you’ve explained, the bigger picture around this, that this is all about introducing less plastic into the environment and finding alternatives for petroleum based products.
Elizabeth: There’s so many projects that I could talk about. On Sunday. I’m doing a presentation that will be sharing what’s possible. I’m also sharing a bunch of resources that people can look into. to try and do this on their own also. Biofabrication is a pretty cool field.
Dale: I look forward to meeting you or seeing you on site at Maker Faire on Sunday.