The next big technological leap is biological

Programmed microorganisms and living structures. The next big technological leap is biologicalL.

IMAGINE BEING ABLE to create a building out of a material that generates energy from the sun, mends itself, adapts to its surroundings, is antibacterial, cleans the air and captures carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

You are already holding the material in your hand. The cellulose in the page of a magazine is created through a biological process that involves all of the above, and more. However, before the magazine made its way into your hands, the biological process was interrupted. Imagine, instead of interrupting the biological systems, they could be tamed? This is part of the dream in what is described as the next big technological revolution: letting the art of engineering at cellular and nano level merge to create a synthetic biology that serves us.

The speculation is that such technology will not only underpin the computers and medical treatments of the future, but build up the whole of our existence.

“Biosynthesis is likely to be the most important change in our culture for three millennia.”

So says architect, doctor and researcher Rachel Armstrong, who is working on promoting the development of living architecture. She continues:

“Synthetic biology has the potential to equip us with a new set of tools and production methods, far removed from those that have characterised our modern age.”

The idea might seem alien. But for those who are familiar with wood, the biological raw material can provide a shortcut to understanding the new concept. From trees, we’ve sawn boards and planks, but also extracted tar, paper, rubber and bark fibre, harvested fruit and nuts. The composition and properties of wood have been changed and refined to suit our lives and our requirements. Advocates of biosynthesis argue that it is simply the next logical step in the same direction.

WITH THE TECHNOLOGY AVAILABLE today, we are already able to ‘design’ biological systems at cellular or bacterial level. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the impact is on a microscopic scale. A group of Cambridge students recently won an international gene technology competition with their proposal to replace streetlights with self-illuminating trees. The idea was to achieve this by introducing a bioluminescence gene from bacteria into the DNA of the trees. This in turn inspired the project Glowing Plant, which took the concept further for a successful kickstarter campaign. Now, in 2014, they’re expecting to move from functioning prototypes to commercial-scale production of glowing pot plants.

We are thus getting closer to architecture made from living materials. It may be time to ask: Should we let biologically programmed swarms of single-celled organisms build our cities? It may not be quite as sci-fi as it first appears – after all, single-celled organisms already make our bread rise. In fact, yeast, which is a form of single-celled fungus, is considered the oldest known form of biotechnology. And with bread-like recipes, innovation projects such as iWood, Ecovative and Mycotecture have developed components for experimental art installations, as well as market-specific insulation and construction panels. To create these structural elements, sawdust is mixed with water and yeast, which converts the cellulose into biopolymers. It’s like styrofoam, only organic.

“As with plaster or cement, fungi grown in moulds can produce practically any shape imaginable,” states Phil Ross, who is the brains behind Mycotecture.

For the time being, this means insulation panels, packaging and building blocks. However, in principle, the same technology could be used to cast entire structures.

THE ARCHITECTS AT New York-based Terreform ONE have just such ambitions, and have even got as far as making prototypes. The firm is led by Maria Aiolova and Mitchell Joachim, who run design projects as collaborations between architects and experimental biologists. Together, they ask:

“What can synthetic biology do for design, and vice versa?”

The purpose of growing building materials is, according to them, to change the way people look at both fabrication and gene technology.

Many properties that material researchers are trying to achieve already exist in living organisms. Trees are an excellent example. So why don’t we let them continue living? In some places, we’ve already done that for hundreds of years. The area around the city of Cherrapunji in India, for example, is famed for its bridges, constructed from living aerial roots of the tropical Ficus Elastica tree – the same species as the common domestic rubber plant. The roots are woven into a suspension bridge that, after five to ten years, can carry the weight of as many as 50 people and cover a span of up to 30 metres.

The German research team Baubotanik at the University of Stuttgart has taken the same method and systematised and refined it. They create woven frameworks of fast-growing white willow, Salix Alba, which is similar to the ordinary biofuel crop. As they explain it, the structure is held in place with scaffolding until it becomes self-supporting and the scaffolding can be removed.

“As they grow, the trees adapt their own form and internal structure to the local environment, responding to bending stress and mechanical pressure.”

Founded by Professor Gerd de Bruyn, Baubotanik is run by a team with expertise in botany, construction, urban planning, landscape architecture and architectural theory. Using x-ray imaging and load testing, they analyse how the intersections between the stems, and between the stems and steel fastenings, behave and how their strength can be calculated. The aim of the research is clear:

“It’s to construct living buildings of the same size as fully grown trees.”

THE WOOD AND FOREST INDUSTRY is already a biological industry, and could become a portal for biosynthetic construction. The fact that genetically modified wood raw material is already available on the market also suggests an existing understanding of both the opportunities and pitfalls. If not, perhaps it is high time for the ethical debate to begin? The question is: how far are we prepared to go?

Rachel Armstrong, champion of biosynthetic and living architecture, appears frustrated with the inertia in current practice:

“Buildings are still the dumbest, most inactive clumps of material, acting as ecological obstacles. With the application of energy, fertiliser, maintenance and expensive investments, ‘green’ roofs and walls are created to give the illusion of mature and self-sufficient urban ecosystems.”

But as a direction for architecture, she believes this is a dead-end, pointing out that the world’s most common construction technology, concrete, has barely changed for thousands of years.

“Today’s approach to the production of architecture is ancient. However, the technology that could potentially revolutionise the construction of buildings is even older – it’s life itself.”

Text Björn Ehrlemark

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