Biodesign Challenge Part 2: Visions of the Future Come to Life

Since 2016, Twist Bioscience has been a proud sponsor of the Biodesign Challenge, which connects art and design students with biologists to envision and harness engineered living systems to improve our lives and our environment. They tackle subjects like architecture, energy, communication, and transportation. We asked Marian Shaw, a participant of the Biodesign Challenge from New York University, to share some of her thoughts, interests, and inspirations in a two-part blog series. Here is part two of her series. The first installment of the series is titled, Biodesign Challenge Part 1: Why Biodesign?

It was a humbling and exciting experience to present my project alongside teams from eight other countries recently at the Biodesign Challenge Summit 2018 (BCD) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MoMA) in New York.

Shaw

NYU student Marian Shaw presented her team’s findings.

University students from France, Belgium, Japan, Canada, Colombia, Guatemala, the United Kingdom, Australia, and the U.S. came forward to show their vision of future applications of biotechnology.

The 16 hours at MoMA were filled with inspiration on materials, health, food, music and their relationship to biotechnology. Some projects were purely speculative, others more practical, showing a proof-of-concept. In all, 26 other teams presented.

Ocean Resources

Product

One of the goals of the Keio University team sought to develop was environmentally friendly, “clean cosmetics.”

Keio University drew inspiration from the ocean. The team’s project, “Biiden Kobo,” tapped into the latest advances of genetic engineering to explore ways to produce biodegradable cosmetics, pigments, and packaging using genetic engineering techniques to leverage components of the ocean’s flora and fauna. Their project shows we’ve just begun to use materials derived from nature to create useful and beautiful products.

Shaw Jellyfish

Shaw discussed jellyfish properties.

In a similar vein, my fellow New York University student Kathy Wu and I sought to examine whether properties of jellyfish, proliferating in overabundance in our oceans, could replicate those of petroleum-based plastics, now increasingly defiling the environment as waste. What if we could close the loop between jellyfish abundance and another marine threat—plastic waste? Around 100,000 marine animals die yearly from suffocating on or consuming plastic, which they often confuse with jellyfish. We observed samples of gelatin derived from fish, glycerin derived from plants, and mold—under a microscope. Testing different ratios of glycerin to gelatin and plastic shape/size, we strove towards a material that could become a product, such as a “plastic” bag or bottle. In our opinion, the diverse life from which we derived our bioplastics makes it much more structurally interesting than highly processed plastic.

The Beneficial Uses of Waste

Another developing theme emerged: targeting human waste, and I must admit I’ve never been so moved by the subject. With “Bactoyou,” a microbial time machine proposed by a team from Parsons School of Design, microbial waste samples would be sequenced, and the data stored. For example, if I felt sick one day, I could recover my microbiome data from a healthier day, and strive towards regaining that day’s indicated good microbes via probiotic supplements or food. By gaining a complete picture of their microbial community, users can strive towards optimal health by maintaining a balanced microbiome. Maybe in the future, “Bactoyou” could take one back to their pre-potty days, a time period with specific environmental issues – namely, caused by typical diapers.

Diapers, in fact, were on the minds of other presenters as well.

UC Davis

The University of California, Davis team showed its biodegradable diaper, “Sorbit.”

By growing bacterial cellulose from citrus agricultural waste, University of California, Davis created “Sorbit,” a diaper that could biodegrade, and then be used to promote agricultural growth. A group from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago proposed “Wee Grow,” a service that provides subscribers with a device that composts biodegradable diapers into agricultural fertilizer. I see a future collaboration between the two. Perhaps “Wee Grow” could provide their customers with “Sorbit diapers,” optimizing and ensuring their degradation.

UBC

The University of British Columbia’s team showed off the grand prize, a glass microbe, for its MYCOmmunity Toilet presentation.

Last in my discussion of human waste is University of British Columbia's “MYCOmmunity Toilet,” the winner of BDC 2018. This team importantly sought to address a pressing social justice issue while leveraging nature’s resources. To be deployed in refugee camps, this mycelium toilet converts human waste into fertilizer, which could – when full – be planted beneath ground to nourish plant growth, transforming the camps from barren to lush lands.

Speaking of mycelium—fungi’s filamentous network was a hot topic at BDC. At BioDesign Challenge Summit 2018, we all envisioned future environments built—or grown—from mycelium. Perhaps we will generate energy inside grocery stores, as we step on Arizona State University’s “Mystep,” sensor-embedded mycelium bricks. Implanted with magnetic particles, mycelium could be magnetically controlled to engender structures of organic form. This interface between the biological world and technology is called “Mycterials,” by a University of Edinburgh team.

Creative Designs  

New relationships between tech and bio were the foundations of several other projects.

Ghent

Ghent University’s team explained how its project, “Aerolis,” is biofunctionalized with tailor-made microorganisms that break down air pollutants.

Algorithmic design informed by wind velocity data and tree bark characteristics gave rise to Ghent University’s “Aerolis,” an air-purifying installation for urban and industrial environments.

Contestants from California Institute of the Arts employed an age-old  technique to better understand biology. “The Tonal Ligand” stimulates intercellular communication between ligands and receptors using musical concepts such as consonance and dissonance. Amidst lots of bio talk, this team created a space for us to sit back and enjoy rhythmic expression from a trombone and violin.

Boulle

The team from Écolle Boulle and Centre de Recherches Interdisciplinaires demonstrated “Minima,” a set of ceramic and glass tools for sensing DNA in food.

Écolle Boulle and Centre de Recherches Interdisciplinaires focused on a rather novel technology to help us better understand our food. “Minima, The Elementary Biology Lab” is a simple kitchen appliance that reveals DNA signatures to determine contents of food. I hope “Minima” becomes as commonplace as the microwave and oven one day. Is that real fruit in my sorbet?

Beyond Animal Materials

Three teams encouraged us to wave goodbye to animal-derived materials—specifically, wool—commonly used in the fashion industry. With the Fashion Institute of Technology’s platform, “Werewool,” together we are invited to explore which enzymes bind which proteins to create fibers of desired properties. Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) presented “Kerasynth,” microfluidic skin on which follicles from diverse species give rise to hairs that can replace animal fibers. MICA had me wondering, could we grow fur of the extinct Tasmanian tiger and Quagga, the extinct Plains Zebra?

Andes

The Universidad de los Andes, Colombia team created “Woocoa,” a vegan wool made from hemp and coconut fibers treated with enzymes extracted from the oyster mushroom.

I appreciated how Universidad de los Andes, Colombia—winner of the Animal-Free Wool Prize—honored natural resources specific to their country—hemp and coconut fibers—to create a biodegradable textile, “Woocoa.”

Combining the themes of microorganisms and materials, New York University Integrated Digital Media proposed “Fabiont,” probiotic fabric comprised of beneficial bacteria incorporated in silk fibroins extracted from raw silk. I dream of “Fabiont” silk pajamas one day to supplement and nourish my skin microbiome.

Another team from Universidad de los Andes, Colombia wants bacteria to be intentionally incorporated into our daily lives via another medium. They envision “Yundo,” wall art that hosts cyanobacteria which convert carbon dioxide into oxygen and are engineered to emit bioluminescence and lovely scents.

After being immersed in the Biodesign projects at MoMA, I came away with  feeling optimistic about the power of the visions of not only my fellow students, but the visions of others around the world. This type of commitment and creativity shows the path forward toward sustaining our planet and its environment.

 

Featured image: A glass microbe, the Biodesign Challenge 2018 Grand Prize

Here is the first installment of the series: Biodesign Challenge Part 1: Why Biodesign?