In early October, the 3rd International Conference on Plant Synthetic Biology, Bioengineering, and Biotechnology took place in Cambridge, UK. Ross Cloney…
I have always looked at multidisciplinarity as the key to technological advancement. I was pleased to see my belief backed by a crowd of 380 people participating to Biofabricate 2016 – the annual summit for the emerging world of grown materials. Biofabricate is a beautiful example of how distant fields such as biology, technology and design can come together to change the world into a more sustainable, environmentally aware place: namely, through the use of biology for growing the materials of the future. I am honoured to have been invited to participate to this event and to have witnessed the birth of something unique, something that will literally reshape our future in so many different ways. I was also pleased to see that synthetic biology plays an important role in the revolution.
Biofabricate 2016 was the third conference of its kind. While the first two events were hosted by Microsoft, this year the conference was held in Parsons New School of Design on 5th Avenue, on the 17th of November. Biofabricate was founded in 2014 by Suzanne Lee, Chief Creative Officer of Modern Meadow and CEO of Biocouture. Suzanne should be very proud of what she has created: a space in which to experience how the application of biotechnology to the production of new materials has gone from being subject of science fiction to tangible technological advancement directed to an expanding community of people passionate about biomaterials.
The event was varied: during a single track speaker programme of four sessions the discussion developed from a broad discourse about the role of design in biofabrication to various presentations by CEOs and CTOs of successful material companies that use bacteria, yeast, mushrooms and algae to manufacture their products. The discussion also touched the societal implications of the democratisation of biology to end with a big announcement from Adidas.
Biotechnology, Design and the community
One big theme that emerged during the conference is the concern around the societal issues that are arising with the emerging of new biotechnological applications directly applicable to our everyday life.
Concerns were raised about current existing policies and their inadequacy to safeguard our privacy, and our genetic information. Tina Gorjanc brought a fascinating, yet scary example of the shortcomings of our current legislation system: as a student, she was able to patent a process through which she could potentially obtain a range of human leather accessories starting from the genetic material extracted from late artist Alexander McQueen. If a student is allowed to do this, probably the current system has big flaws, which need to be addressed quickly.
Daisy Ginsberg approached synthetic biology from the point of view of a designer, artist and writer. She suggests that the help of designers is fundamental in order to link synthetic biology to the community, in particular, she approaches the problem by posing questions such as: “what does it mean to design biology, and what is the role of design in synthetic biology? Is designing biology different: does it require special care? How can we do work that is good for science while at the same time raising public discussion?”
Anthony Dunne spoke about the importance of educating society to accept the change, also touching on the issues of security, and the responsibility of the press which should help separate reality from fiction and avoid sensationalism: a point for which I am fighting daily.
The Biofabricate community values education (as the synthetic biology community does), and I was glad to hear Megan Palmer speak about how the iGEM competition has grown to serve the community and become a global enterprise in the past twelve years. What was new to me was the Biodesign Challenge, a more recent competition with which students of art and design are asked to partner with biology and biotechnology to show us what the future of biotech looks like. The main aims are: to create a community in which scientists, designers and artists collaborate, inform the public and bring fresh ideas to biotech.
Synthetic Biology and biofabrication: some interesting examples
When biotech/synbio processes are advanced and efficient enough to catch the interest of big companies, such as Adidas and North Face, I think that it is safe to say that a new era has begun. And this is exactly what is happening from the point of view of biomaterial production. Probably the most exciting Biofabricate announcement was the advancement made in the production of the spider silk protein using genetically modified bacteria, avoiding fossil fuels and using only a fraction of the energy that is required for the production of plastic. The production process has improved so much that NorthFace is going to be presenting the first spider silk-made Moon Parka. The prototype will be displayed on 5th Avenue later in November. Adidas, instead, uncovered their new product in front of our eyes: Adidas Futurecraft Biofabric, a pair of running shoes the tissue of which is made entirely of spider silk (the sole instead is still made of recycled plastic ocean). Spider silk is a noble material: it is fully biosourced and biodegradable (compostable!) while maintaining an excellent tensile strength.
It is important to notice how collaboration is once again key: the two multinationals are working together with experts in the field of production of spider silk through synthetic biology: NorthFace partnered with Spiber, a Japanese company, while Adidas’ partner is the German company AMSilk, producer of the so-called Biosteel spider silk.
Smaller companies are also making great strides in contributing to the revolution. For instance, Taxa exhibited fragrant moss, genetically engineered patchouli-scented living moss, while Living Ink Technologies is producing sustainable ink derived from algae instead of petroleum.
Using microorganisms to grow new materials: not strictly synbio but…
Even though there is not a unique definition for synthetic biology, with this term the community refers mainly to “the design and construction of new biological parts, devices and systems, and the re-design of existing natural biological systems for useful purposes.” While attending biofabricate I started wondering if this definition is somehow a bit limiting, as there were so many projects in the conference that did not fall strictly into this category, but that I am sure would be of great interest to the synthetic biology community, and that struck me for their utility and beauty. For instance: Dr. Armpit (Chris Callewaert) and the company Mother dirt have been rethinking about the role of bacteria in our everyday life. While Dr. Armpit proposes microbiota transplants to eliminate unpleasant body odors, Mother dirt already sells skin products to nurture and replenish the microbiota of the skin.
In the same way, it would be a crime not to mention companies that are growing furniture using microbes such as Ecovative that uses mycelium as natural glue to avoid formaldehyde, and Biomason that employes microorganisms to grow cement. Similarly, Maurizio Montalti seeks to replace petroleum-based plastics with mycelium derived new materials, 100% compostable, through the MOGU project.
Probably the most creative project of all was the research coming out from the laboratory of Andrew Pelling. Andrew Pelling looks at science with the eye of a curious person, and he was able to create human ‘ears’ starting from… an apple! While I admire his work (and you should check his TED talk out) I also applaud the way in which he approaches science. Using creative solutions, and recycling everything he can find, he is out to demonstrate that science is within reach of everyone. With this in mind, he co-founded Spiderwort, a company that aims to “reduce the research cost, decrease the time to obtain the results and make sciences more accessible to academic and the general public.” Their first product is a low cost, open source CO2 incubator for mammalian cell culture.
Much more than a conference: the Design Lab
“Our unique Design Lab Exhibit showcases the future before it arrives.”
As I also tweeted during the conference, I was left speechless by the Design Lab. I believe that this is what makes Biofabricate so unique: the chance to see the prototypes of the new materials that were presented during the talks, to speak with the people that are fabricating them in order to understand better how are they made and what are their potentials. With plenty of time during the breaks, I had the chance to meet some of the speakers in front of their stands. This fuelled the discussion and gave them the chance to show me their products, which were on display to touch, smell or just observe with a closer look.
In the Design Lab I also had the opportunity of meeting Aminolabs: one of the companies whose primary aim is to make biology available to all. Biology is a complex matter, no doubt about it, but there are straightforward processes that can be standardized and made user-friendly to make non-experts able to exploit the potential of biotechnology. For instance, with the Aminolabs kit, designers are now able to produce and purify a different range of pigments by transforming the gene of interest into the E.coli host and expressing and purifying colourful proteins. While this can be useful to help designers understand and use biology, it certainly is educative to all, and I would love to see this kind of kits used in schools as a playful way to introduce biology to young people! A tangible step in the democratisation of biotechnological tools.
This conference positively overwhelmed me in so many ways. If there is a fault with it is that it was held over one single day: I wish there had been more time to talk to people and that the speakers had longer sessions to present their work. But I guess that this will probably change in the future judging by the success of this year event and considering that the Biofabricate community is growing fast.
Biofabricate gave me food for thought: while biomaterial is going to shape our reality, and biotechnology is set to be soon democratized, there is the need to reshape our current policies to make of this a safe transition. To see such a great involvement and creativity in the field of biofabrication gives me great hope for a better future for our world, which is in need of quick, tangible, sustainable solutions.
Special thanks to Daniel Martinez for the beautiful pictures included in this article and to Jonathon O’Leary for his help and kindness throughout the event.