Human cells, plant cells. Self-healing bridges, shops for human body parts. High-tech fabrics, juicy steaks that don’t menace the environment or enrage PETA.
All of the above: Examples of things we can build from cells in the future, all possible due to advances in 3-D printing, biotechnology, and demand fueled by shortages of resources and growing population.
“As the diverse fields of biology, design, and digital fabrication collide, we are poised to enter a more efficient, more natural technological revolution,” says the introduction to a new book about this future.
Here are five types of things we’ll be growing from cells, according to Nina Tandon and Mitchell Joachim, co-authors of Super Cells: Building With Biology.
Tandon leads a startup called EpiBone which grows customized bone parts by harvesting cells from a patient, scaffolding them within a bioreactor, then stimulating growth with mechanical forces. It takes three to five weeks for the bone to mature.
In the book, Tandon takes the reader on a tour of several other labs developing anatomical parts: bladders, kidneys, skin, tubes made from human cells. The complex organs aren’t likely to be ready for a decade or two. But grown human cells could soon be useful as drug testing platforms, she says.
Joachim, a New York designer, grows buildings. “I believe we can completely redefine sustainable building,” he says. So far he’s developed two prototypes: one made with living plants and another cultured from pig cells.
His Fab Tree Hab house, which he constructed on a Brooklyn rooftop, is crafted from “self-grafting trees, such as elm, live oak, and dogwood.” Branches form “continuous lattice frame for the walls and roof.” The house collects its own water and a “living machine” of bacteria, fish, and plants purify waste.
The In Vitro Meat Habitat is 3-D printed from pig cells. “To me, the house illustrated the biological supremacy achieved by using real organic materials grown from scratch,” he says. “This is different than, say, using bamboo as a building material and replenishing the harvested supply. Instead, it’s inventing a new material and fully integrating it into nature’s metabolism.”
Tandon explores the work of Suzanne Lee, a British designer who makes cellulosic clothes. She mixes tea, sugar, acid and micro-organisms, then harvests fibers from the surface, which she then forms into shapes. The result–shirts, jackets, dresses–are elegant, unique, and very environmentally friendly. “If you were to compare a jacket made of our material with one of cotton, ours takes 50 liters of water, and the other takes thousands of gallons,” Lee says.
There are issues, including the stench of fermentation and the absorbency of the fabric (it gets like a sponge in a rainstorm). But Tandon is impressed:”Where we’re heading, Lee proposes, is the development of more sophisticated technologies that will enable us to “actually bio-print and lay down biological materials in a designed, structural way. Further down the line, I imagine we could print an entire bio-shoe.”
The enormous footprint of the meat industry, a growing global population, and changing diets will also increase demand for in-vitro meats, Tandon says. She focuses on Andras Forgacs’s lab at Meat Meadow, a startup in Missouri. “If he and others succeed, cultured meat production could potentially deliver vast environmental efficiencies over cultivated meat,” she says. Projections predict that in-vitro meat could use 99% less land, 96% less water, produce 96% fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and consume 45% less energy than conventional meat.
After organs, houses, fashion, and steak, there’ll be a place for cell-based art, social commentary, and entertainment. Joachim looks at the work of bio-artists in Western Australia who took foreskin cells and re-programmed them “into an embryonic-like state.” “Then they directed the differentiation of the cells into neurons and grew them into neural tissue that generated neural impulses,” he says. This “biological brain” is a challenge to “Western culture’s fetishization of consciousness,” Joachim says.
Bio-art is essential as it draws us into the “mysterious realm of genetic alterations and bioengineering” and opens up “intense bioethical disputes that happen chiefly in secluded meetings,” he argues.