September 21, 2016
Biodesign for the Real World
It’s no secret that most scientists tend to overlook design – sometimes deeming it too non-technical or aesthetically focused, or simply because they find it too displaced from their own field of work. But as it turns out, design is a key element in any industry. If engineering is what turns scientific discoveries into real world products, design is what fits them to real world people.
This is especially important for the biotechnology industry, as it determines not only what a possible product may look like (a very simplistic and straightforward view) but also how users interact with it, the necessary production line to make it possible, and even the way the product itself is thought of in terms of scientific discovery. To exemplify the unique view design brings to the usability and applications of synthetic biology, three exponents of the interaction between synthetic biology and design will be joining us for a fireside chat at SynBioBeta SF 2016 “Biodesign for the Real World”.
Modern Meadow’s call to fame arguably happened as early as 2011 at a TEDMED talk, where current CSO Gabor Forgacs went onstage and proceeded to cook and eat a piece of cultured pork meat in front of a stunned crowd. This little stunt was the first taste of what Modern Meadow ultimately set up to do: produce lab-grown, animal-free meat.
In order to reach such an ambitious goal, the company has decided to start with animal-free leather as a gateway product. This is where Chief Creative Officer Suzanne Lee comes in. This pioneer in biotechnology in textiles started growing microbial materials in 2003, and established the first biocreative consultancy Biocouture. Her work in Modern Meadow has focused on taking the company’s base science and making it ready-to-wear.
It’s not just about designing a lab-grown garment – as Lee stated to The Guardian, the realm of possibilities is not enclosed by only replicating leather. Biomimicry may just be the first step in a journey that culminates in the creation of completely new materials with better and improved qualities, thus removing animals completely from the equation and moving to the next step of biotech-created materials.
As Ginkgo Bioworks’ Creative Director, Christina Agapakis is blurring the distinction between design and synthetic biology. The company, which advertises itself under the motto “Biology by design” has already made plenty of headlines this year due to numerous alliances with Gen9, Twist Bioscience, Amyris and Ajinomoto, successfully establishing itself as one of the most buzzed about synbio companies nowadays. Ginkgo’s approach to design and biotechnology seems exemplified in the figure of Agapakis, whose work spans biology, art, writing and design.
On the high tech side, she worked on creating hydrogen fuel in bacteria and making photosynthetic animals during her PhD in Harvard. In the artistic and probably even more high tech side, she has created microbial art that explores allergenic protein crystal structures, ecosystem mapping through dirt sequencing, and at one point she even made cheese using bacteria from the human body.
Of this experience, Agapakis writes: “We live in biological world completely surrounded by rich communities of microorganisms, but often in a cultural world that emphasizes total antisepsis. But sanitized and pasteurized for your protection is the antiseptic symbol of sensory death. […]Will we be able to re–engineer bacterial communities as readily as we can add or delete genes to and from E. coli? How will synthetic biology change our relationship to the microbial communities that surround us?”
They say writing about a subject is the fastest way to become an expert on it. If that’s the case, Daniel Grushkin is well on his way to becoming a master of biodesign. In 2015, Grushkin started the Biodesign Challenge, a program that pairs university art and design students with leading biologists to envision future applications for biotech in areas like medicine, food, materials, and fashions. Participants showcased their projects at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City this June, which NPR covered in a documentary short.
As a former journalist, Grushkin has covered “the intersection of biology, culture and business for top tier publications”, and has written about several pioneers of the field, including fellow fireside chat speaker Suzanne Lee. His articles have been featured in The New York Times, Businessweek, National Geographic Adventure, Popular Science, and Scientific American.
In 2009, Grushkin co-founded Genspace, New York City’s Community Biolab, under the mission of promoting citizen science and access to biotechnology. Genspace provides educational outreach, cultural events, and also supplies lab space for innovators and entrepreneurs through monthly membership systems.