Understanding Biological Systems and the Implications for Design

Pipets in a line

Pipets in a line

Order in the chaos

Order in the chaos


Oliver Medvedik, Ph.D. is the Co-founder of GenSpace, Director of Science at Terreform ONE,  Assistant Director of the Maurice Kanbar Center for Biomedical Engineering at The Cooper Union and was, among his many other accolades, a 2012 Ted Fellow.


Readings: (full MLA citation to come later)

1.    An Organism’s Microbiome May Drive Evolution of New Species

2.    Host Biology in Light of the Microbiome: Ten Principles of Holobionts and Hologenomes

3.    A Symbiotic View Of Life: We Have Never Been Individuals

4.    A Shadow Biosphere

5.    Hypersea Invasion

6.    Designer microbiome: MIT biologists program common gut bacteria

7.    Better Living Through Germs: Design for the Microbiome



·      Biomolecular networks

·      Microbiota - the microbes in or on a host, including bacteria, archaea, viruses, protists, and fungi

·      Epigenetic - Biology relating to or arising from nongenetic influences on gene expression

·      Ribosomes - minuscule but highly complex molecular devices composed of both protein and nucleic acid (RNA).

·      holobionts - composed of the host plus all of its symbiotic microbes

·      hologenome – a concept that is a holistic view of genetics in which animals and plants are polygenomic entities

Earlier this month I was re-watching the NOVA series by Briane Greene called The Fabric of the Cosmos. In one of the episodes Dr. Greene discusses String Theory and how these tiny vibrating strings might very well be the fundamental building blocks of the universe. Furthermore, that the mathematics of String Theory dictates that there must exist a 10-dimentional framework. Meaning, there is far more to our reality than the 3 dimensions (plus time) that we live in. And somehow, when you look at images from the Hubble telescope or gaze at the night’s sky, it is not too far of an intellectual leap to image that, yes, there is so much more that exists in the cosmos that we do not understand. I can’t help but make a parallel observation when thinking about planetary biology. Scientists are just beginning to understand the complex relationships between the microcosm and the macrocosm. The vast molecular systems that make up our planet and our own bodies may have more “dimensionality” than we realize.

In the paper A Symbiotic View Of Life: We Have Never Been Individuals the authors write that advances in bio-technology have “dramatically transform[ed] our conceptions of the planet’s biosphere. They have not only revealed a microbial world of much deeper diversity than previously imagined, but also a world of complex and intermingled relationships—not only among microbes, but also between microscopic and macroscopic life” (Gilbert, et al. 326). What’s more interesting is that the make-up of the microbiome in plants and animals may in fact be drivers of the most fundamental aspects of ourselves including our genetics and even our behavior. “Symbiotic microbes are fundamental to nearly every aspect of host form, function, and fitness, including in traits that once seemed intangible to microbiology: behavior, sociality, and the origin of species” (Bordenstein, 2). In my conversation with Dr. Medvedik this week we discussed the idea that trauma, such as post-tramatic stress, could be passed down through genetics (epigenetics). Could it be though that it is the microbiome that responds, or even dictates our response to stress and to trauma?

The implications for design are vast when considering the microbiome. Researchers at MIT have recently begun to experiment with “programming” cells by modifying their DNA – in other words bioengineered microbiome. Designers have already begun to respond to these ideas. In the article Better Living Through Germs: Design for the Microbiome, designers have come up with unique ideas that sit at the intersection of science, design and technology. For example, Tim Kim created a design future “app that turns the opaque functions of your internal organs into dynamic data visualizations” directly on your smart phone.

Gilbert reminds us that “[w]e perceive only that part of nature that our technologies permit and, so too, our theories about nature are highly constrained by what our technologies enable us to observe” (Gilbert, et al. 326). Yet, designers, have already begun to imagine the possibilities of how we can make our lives better by harnessing the massive power of the microbiome.


Understanding more about the human microbiome will enable us to understand how to manipulate DNA in the course of a person's own life. Meaning, is it possible to change your "genetic code" (today) by modifying the bacteria that live inside you?

And if this is possible to do on the human scale, how could modifications or further insight into the microbes on Earth help us combat the planetary devastation caused by Climate Change?

Next Nature describes our planet as having a geosphere, a biosphere and also a noosphere - the realm of human thought. Is it possible that, as we now understand that we are part of a hologenome with the microbiome in our bodies, we are part of a larger system connected by the human consciousness on the planet? Do changes in the noosphere crate changes in our bodies or the planetary biosphere? Are all systems interconnected in ways we cannot fathom?