Bio Computation

NERI OXMAN, Head of the Mediated Matter Group at MIT Media Lab

NERI OXMAN, Material Ecology

NERI OXMAN, Material Ecology

David Benjamin, Bio Computation


This week I interviewed the head of the Bio Computation Group, Andrew Philips, at the Microsoft Research Lab in Cambridge, England. In Philips’ group, bio design is not just about “incorporating living systems into design practice,” but it is about literally designing the way the cells in living systems function and behave. His work aims to program biological systems using (1) a proprietary programming language his team has developed and (2) DNA modification techniques. The software enables a bio-programmer to program DNA circuits that

allow computation to be performed at the molecular scale, while also interfacing directly with the molecular components of living systems. They form structures that are stable inside cells, and their interactions can be precisely controlled by modifying their nucleotide sequences.

Philips’ work sits at the intersection of software design, software modeling, and biological assembly. He imagines a future where, using his software, “we will be able to reprogram the way cells work [and thus] be able to reprogram the way diseases work.”

While companies like Microsoft and Riffyn are creating biological software and programming language platforms, there are many other companies in the bio-tech space looking to capitalize on this growing field by literally reengineering life. Amyris, Juno Therapeutics, and Calico are just a few that I researched after my conversation with Philips. For example, Calico, a Google acquisition, is researching the “biology that controls lifespan,” and Juno Therapeutics “genetically engineers one’s own T-Cells” as a form of cancer treatment. These companies are attempting to redesign life at the cellular level and are reimagining what it means to be human. Is the fountain of youth and a cure for cancer possible in my lifetime? Will synthetic biology become commonplace in the next decade?

This week I also attended a lecture on Material Ecology by Neri Oxman at the GSAPP of Columbia University. Oxman, like Philips, contends that in the next 10 years, because of synthetic biology, “being human will be something very different [than it is today].” Her project, Mushtari, is a Design Futures piece that plays with themes of the human microbiome, synthetic biology, and space travel. The wearable device is comprised of:

...a single strand filled with living matter inspired by the form and function of the human gastrointestinal tract [and] is designed as an organ system for consuming and digesting biomass, absorbing nutrients and expelling waste.

Her piece serves as a prototype for a future when designers think, not just about the function and aesthetics of an object, but of how the biological systems at the cellular level might be modified to augment the object itself. Mushtari is designed “to support the flow of cyanobacteria engineered to convert daylight into consumable sucrose” for a time when humans live off-planet.

In her lecture, Oxman asked the audience of architects: “To what extent will we have to hack nature to get to the larger scale of the built environment?” “Hacking nature” to redesign the built environment has been a central theme of this course, yet today there is still no concrete, implementable solution that answers the question. However, bio-designer and architect David Benjamin imagines a future when there is a very blurred line between architect and synthetic biologist. In his project, Bio Computation, a silent short-film, he argues that we will soon be “creating new sustainable flows of energy and raw material” through the implementation of synthetic biology using bio-computation and programming (like that being done today at Microsoft) with a seamless application to bio-materials in the built environment.

Neri Oxman closed her lecture by stating that we now live in a world where we, humans, will “mother nature.” In this sense, she refers to mother as a verb, meaning to give rise to or to produce. And indeed, with synthetic biology and bio computation, biology and electronics are becoming fungible (recently proclaimed by Joi Ito, head of the MIT Media Lab, at the Solid Conference), and humans are now defining and producing nature. 

I ended my conversation with Andrew Philips by asking him what he thought the dangers could be with these emerging bio-technologies. As a scientist, he spoke of protocols and ethical guidelines, and while Philips is well aware of the potential harm in bio-tech, he is one of the good guys, truly trying to build a better world by tackling disease. As a designer, I do think about those individuals who may not be so good. What are the implications when humans define what nature is? What are the bio-political implications?

Speculation:

In ten years, bio computation, the ability to program DNA, will be commonplace and nearly everyone (with access to healthcare) will have genetically engineered cells in his body to combat disease. Because biotechnology is growing faster than Moore’s Law, in 20-25 years we will be engineering biology for the built environment. 


Photos from Neri Oxman's Lecture:

Proposal Towards a Reimagined Built Environment

For the past two months I have been researching the realm of Bio Design and exploring how humans might imagine a near (5-10 years) future when living systems can be seamlessly integrated into design practice—an integration that would fundamentally enhance the integrity of the design system not just its aesthetics. This research was based heavily on the premise that in the Age of the Anthropocene—at the precipice of devastation from climate change—our civilization simply cannot afford to continue the current trajectory. Something must change. I believe that change should be, in part, to establish a symbiotic relationship[1] with nature and the environment. Specifically, my interest has centered around the built environment (buildings and cities), perhaps because, in spite of the technological revolution over the last generation, our built environments have remained virtually unchanged for the past 100 years. Our buildings, both new and old, are relics of a bygone era; they linger in our cities, constant reminders of an epoch in human history born from steel and oil. Thus, I sought to understand if it was possible for our built environments to be dynamic, living systems. Could we live in symbiosis with the natural environment? What if we could grow our cities instead of build them?

Moving towards true biological systems integration into our architecture to literally grow our cities will become a reality, and many top scientists and designers are working towards implementation of these projects—at least in the longer term. Yet, in the near term, I think what is most important is a public consciousness shift.  As part of my research into Bio Design, I have met with luminaries who span the spectrum of the field from architects to synthetic biologists[2], I have attended the Biofabrication conference that showcases the latest advancements in Bio Design and Bio Technology, and I have read and viewed countless source materials. While there is a part of me that remains optimistic about the future of Bio Design, the unfortunate reality is that the work being done in this field today remains largely aesthetic and speculative. To create real impact, considerable technological growth is required, and, perhaps even more importantly, to create penetration into the consumer and commercial markets, there needs to be larger economic incentives or subsidies from local and federal governments.[3] Is there another direction, perhaps a smaller step we could take towards integrating biological systems into our society in a more publically palpable way? Can we step away from the aisle-dividing climate change topic towards a public health argument to create government support for Bio Designs integrated into our cities?

 

The Human Microbiome

The emerging field of the human microbiome is beginning to radically shift our understanding of both ourselves and our relationship to the environment. For example, we now know that in the average human, microbial cells out-number human cells 10:1,[4] which means that 90% of the cells in our bodies are not human. In fact, it is believed that there are more bacteria in the human body than there are stars in the Milky Way Galaxy.[5] A paper published in August, 2015, argues that:

Animals and plants are no longer heralded as autonomous entities but rather as biomolecular networks composed of the host plus its associated microbes, i.e., "holobionts." As such, their collective genomes forge a "hologenome.”[6]

Microbiologists are increasingly finding links between our health and the microbes that live in our bodies. Obesity,[7] depression,[8] and brain functionality, such as memory,[9] are a few of the health risks being linked to an unhealthy microbiome. And while there are many contributing factors to a healthy microbiome, some research suggests that many of these health concerns are modern phenomenon caused by humans living in cities (i.e., away from nature).

[D]isease issues [in the West] of the 20th and 21st century… have to do with nutrition and autoimmune processes…We don’t have a definitive cause yet, but as we look at the new science being done, we see a lot of connections to the microbiome and [microbial imbalance].[10]

Could there be a connection between human health, the microbiome, and the built environment? Could the fact that in modern life humans are so removed from nature be a cause of much of our modern disease? And if so, can we begin to design with the microbiome in mind to optimize human health and create a symbiotic relationship with our bodies and our built environments?

 

Proposal

This past summer I worked as a Research Fellow at Terreform One, a New York City architecture, urban and ecological design firm. My work there focused on the Urban Farm Pod—“a ‘living’ cabin for individuals and urban nuclear families to grow and provide for their daily vegetable needs[11]” (see Figure 1).  Part of my research was to design, test, and implement a system for food production. Using the Red Hook Housing Project, a “food desert,” as a test-bed, we sought to understand the economic, legal/political, and technological[12] implications of using the pods as food sources for the community.