“Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.”
- Henry David Thoreau, Walking, 1862
The bounty of the biosphere offers endless material solutions. Humans have known this ever since they felled a tree to build a barrel for beer or sliced bamboo to fashion floorcovering. The renewable, robust and efficient processes found in nature still best our most sophisticated engineering, and usually by a wide margin. Consider the car and the cow: two heavy machines bred or designed for a specific set of goals. The car relies on tremendous material, labor and energy inputs, from ore smelting to road building and oil drilling. The car requires an army of designers, manufacturers, distributors, advertisers and mechanics to function. It produces a fast transportation service and releases polluting carbon emissions, heavy metals and heat all drawn from fossil fuels. The cow, in contrast, requires parents; then it needs air, feed and some open space with grass. In return it produces protein-rich milk, fertilizer and, when ready to graze in the great beyond, its unharvestable bits can decay and enrich the local ecosystem.
The cow releases methane into the atmosphere which impacts the climate, and it’s notable that livestock is generally managed in developed countries following practices that are at turns inhumane and wasteful. But these are not the result of cow-design problems. The cow is a marvelous machine, with its digestion system the subject of a growing number of microbiology studies seeking to learn how its four-chambered stomach works so effectively. The species does impact the environment in large numbers, but considerably less so than the tremendous bundle of wasted heat, materials and energy represented by the car and its vast, attendant systems of production.
The state of grown materials in design and manufacturing can thus be thought of as a search for more cows, a quest for biological machines either discovered or designed that quickly, cleanly and inexpensively replace synthetics. Synthetics are not inherently inferior of course; in many cases they are the best option by far, as with fiberglass in nautical applications. But as our priorities realign we are challenged to find high-performing energy and material efficiencies for which biology has repeatedly proven best. Computer technology is a fast-moving example: as we bump up against the limits of physics in designing ever smaller components like microprocessors, we begin to explore quantum physics or synaptic systems like the human brain for models and materials to keep improving. It’s notable that our brains contain roughly 86 billion networked neurons and remains, by several orders of magnitude, the most complex object in the known universe.
A helpful starting point is to think of biodiversity as the environment’s resiliency engine. It’s like nature’s investment portfolio, a hedge fund designed to maintain its value and diversity in the face of changes or disasters of any sort, refined over three billion years of turbulence and corrections. The gems of this system can appear humble, like the horseshoe crab, a species that has been on the planet for a half a billion years, for whom dinosaurs arrived and disappeared as might a fashionable brand. The appearance of these sluggish-looking arthropods belies their present-day importance as a medical technology. They produce blood with infection-detection mechanisms so sensitive, we cannot replicate it and instead, since it is so exceedingly useful, we harvest it from our (involuntary) aquatic donors for worldwide use testing drugs and medical implants. In short, horseshoe crabs essentially produce mysterious, powder-blue colored blood on a daily basis that is worth up to $15,000 a quart and is among the world’s most valuable liquid commodities.
Leaving behind computers, crabs and cows: many new, promising or especially creative applications of grown materials involve microbes and plants. Researchers at the Wyss Institute at Harvard University have recently made substantial progress in the area of biofilms, the tremendously resilient, self-repairing and self-assembling structures made by bacteria outside their cell walls. Biofilms are ordinarily produced by a cell to connect with its neighbors and bind them together in a fibrous web of protection using an amyloid protein. A team led by Peter Nguyen at Wyss has demonstrated how to piggyback on this process, to attach instructions for the production of desirable proteins along with the typical amyloid protein.
As the biofilm forms or repairs itself, it also produces the protein the scientists designed into its genetic code. The researchers have therefore created a “self-replicating production platform” for the potential large-scale production of “biomaterials that can be programed to provide functions not possible with existing materials.” The research is detailed in a paper published in October in the journal Nature Communications: it describes the successful production of 12 different proteins of varying functions, using this process the authors call BIND, for Biofilm-Integrated Nanofiber Display. In one case they altered a biofilm so that it could effectively adhere to steel (using a protein called MBD) and endure prolonged scrubbing. The Wyss Institute is quick to acknowledge that the concept of a microbial factory has been around for some time, and has successfully produced useful drugs or fuels but what is new here is that it is being applied to materials, and utilizes a particularly robust microbial mechanism.
Another, much different effort to integrate useful biological material into industrial production can be seen in the work of Teresa van Dongen, a recent graduate from the Design Academy in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. Van Dongen created a prototype of a lamp that contains populations of bioluminescent marine plankton. These dinoflagellates are stimulated by the circulation of water and oxygen, achieved through a pendulum-like movement initiated by the product’s user. While the tiny organisms do not live very long in their glass, test-tubed shaped confinement, this design is emblematic of an emerging set of priorities in design and material selection, namely to achieve direct and more symbiotic relationships between ourselves and other species through design. The lamp, Ambio was featured during Dutch Design Week in October as a particularly promising example of student work. A more playful and further developed example of using such sea life that naturally glows is the Dino Pet, a dinosaur-shaped transparent vessel that contains dinoflagellates and must be fed and cared for regularly. It offers entertainment, comfort and education, and may be an appropriate nightlight or desk sculpture for a young person who will presumably grow-up to live in an age characterized by new biotechnologies.
The plant kingdom has also seen its share of recent developments that make its subjects candidates for new or more effective material applications. A group of researchers based in Canada and the US have at last found a way to make wood pulping less energy intensive and polluting. In a paper published in April in Science they present the results of a study to genetically alter trees so that they produce a component of their cell walls called lignin in a different way. Lignin must be broken down chemically to harvest the wood carbohydrate in making paper; it is also a useful compound itself, an ingredient in adhesives, insulation, carbon fibers and paint additives. The genetic alteration involves introducing ester compounds to the lignin, rendering it easier to remove. Importantly, the trees designed thus have exhibited none of the disadvantages, like weakness, stunted growth or susceptibility to pests yielded by other genetic experiments. As both wood pulp and lignin become less expensive and polluting to harvest, cost advantages should be seen in a range of related material applications. Additionally, the lignin-altering technique might applicable to other plants like grasses, making them more efficient as biofuels.
Experiments using fungi for new purposes are also proliferating. A recent example is the MYX Lamp by Jonas Edvard Nielsen, a recent graduate of the Royal Academy of Art in Denmark. This lamp’s form is grown in a mold using waste from textile and agricultural production combined with mushroom spores. It takes on rigid structure in just two weeks time, thanks to the network of mushroom roots, or mycelium, that naturally develop. In another week or more the living form begins to sprout oyster mushrooms that can be safely consumed. The piece is then dried in a kiln and used as a lampshade, with natural sound absorption and flame retardant qualities. In short, it is a concept for harnessing a perfectly natural process to create a slow-food meets slow-manufacturing – or biofacturing – system.
Grown materials have been put to creative use since the beginning of civilization, but now we enter a new phase of how and why we look to them for solutions. Ultimately, we move toward optimization as the blend of economic and ecological imperatives demand; what is different now is that the urgency to do so has never been greater. We look beyond mimicking biological processes to actively incorporate them into manufacturing and building. The rapid advance of the life sciences makes such experiments ever more possible, particularly in the areas of synthetic biology, evolutionary biology and ecology. In light of this new knowledge and increasing interest there is reason to be optimistic that we can live more conscientiously with the other members of our biosphere. What good fortune for us that examples of such interdependent perfection lurk under every rock, swim within every estuary and float invisibly in the air all around us.