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Training Bacteria To Grow Consumer Goods

Thinkers at IDEO are working with scientists to find a way to have E. coli bacteria form objects--like a coffee cup--when exposed to light. It's nature's version of 3-D printing.

The promise of 3-D printing is that we can generate any arbitrary shape at the push of a button, which sounds pretty impressive until you realize that auto-generating any arbitrary 3-D shape is exactly what living organisms have been up to since the invention of multicellular life.

Now designers at IDEO have teamed up with scientists at the Lim Lab at the University of California, San Francisco to envision a "provocation" (that's designer-ese for thought experiment) in which they explore the possibilities of exploiting known properties of microorganisms to literally "grow" the products we use every day.

The ultimate goal of their collaboration is to "program" any desired shape through a combination of manipulations carried out in the lab--from genetic engineering to novel growth media.

In their first visual exploration of this possibility, they decided to expand on an already-demonstrated property of certain E. coli bacteria. These bugs were genetically engineered to be responsive to light, creating so-called "bacterial photographs."

From there, Will Carey and Adam Reineck of IDEO teamed up with Reid Williams, a Ph.D. candidate at UCSF, to imagine a photo-sensitive microorganism that would have its light-sensitive switch linked to a different property--say, the production of a hard shell.

The result, visualized here, could be a tough and durable everyday object made out of cells encased in cellulose--the stuff in plants--or chitin, which is the major component of lobster shells.

It's important to note that at this stage, this process is still entirely conceptual. But it is based on real science, and that's the whole point: design provocations like these help people think outside the mental boxes we've all been put in by our limited knowledge of what's happening at the frontiers of science.

"One day if we understand how to program [living organisms,] we can encode things beyond software--we could encode materiality" says Carey. "That's already happening in nature, but we have no idea how to do that ourselves."

Intriguingly, objects made from living organisms could have unique properties that go beyond their mode of manufacture. In this conception, the bacteria used to grow the cup include some that are an aid to digestion. In other words, probiotics. Embedded in the original culture from which it was grown, and therefore the walls of the cup, the same beasties that give yogurt its healthful punch would leach into water poured into the vessel.

The results would challenge one of the primary tenets of consumer goods; namely, that packaging is secondary to the product being sold. In this case, the packaging actually generates the product for which the consumer paid--a healthful drink. Eliminating the liquid itself from the totality of what has to be shipped could significantly lower the energy and carbon impact of the product.

"At this stage of the game in synthetic biology, the state of the art is to make a soluble chemical--say, a biofuel," says Williams, the scientist. "But what's next? One challenge for science is to make a tangible material. To put genes into an organism to make them self-aggregate into a solid material with the desired properties. Adding to that is this idea that when we envision an object's living material, it's not tied to static properties of the material--we could encode active properties."

With thinking like that on the table, the sky is the limit for things we grow rather than make. Objects could be self-repairing, or they could change colors in the presence of certain toxins, as some engineered plants already do when in the presence of land mines. There would also be consequences, of course, as there were for New York's Museum of Modern Art when a jacket made out of mice cells ran amok and had to be put down.