The Future Of Biotech In Design? Spiders, Slime, And Fungus

At the Biodesign Summit, students paired with scientists to develop projects that merged biotech and design.


A jacket grown from microbes. A chair made of the fungus mycelium. Perfume concocted from “designer” baker’s yeast. As one-offs, these projects may seem far flung and wildly experimental, but together they point to a new movement within the design world.


Known as biodesign (or biotechnology, or bioengineering, depending on how you slice it) it’s a field that marries the scientific know-how of biologists with the big-picture thinking of artists and designers. Leaders in this field–companies like Modern Meadows, a startup that grows leather in a lab, or the experimental architecture firm Terreform One–have already created successful businesses designing with living organisms, and the industry is growing.

Now, the biotech nonprofit Genspace and the Museum of Modern Art in New York have paired up to support the next generation of biodesigners. Last fall, Genspace announced the BioDesign Challenge, a university competition that asks students to create a project that solves a social problem with biotechnology, pairing students with professional designers and scientists.

The resulting projects, presented at a recent summit at MoMA, showcase the most innovative and forward-thinking ideas coming from students working in this new space, ranging from an instructional biomaterials “starter kit” to genetically modified tomatoes that contain the same protein as found in beef. They cover the fields of architecture, fashion, food, product design, and more. Below, we highlight a few of our favorites.

Knitting With Algae
Take the challenge’s winning project, created by fashion design students at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Aiming to curb the enormous amount of waste generated by fast fashion, the team developed a material out of algae and fungus that can be 3D printed into a textile that is both durable and biodegradable. Students Tessa Callaghan, Gian Cui, and Aleksandra Gosiewski, who all specialize in knitwear at FIT, along with Pratt student Aaron Nesser, developed the new material by drawing on what they know. The team took the substrate and made it into a filament that resembles yarn, then wove the threads together into a flexible and stretchy fabric.

Similar to recent projects like the BioCouture jacket by Suzanne Lee and Amy Congdon’s otherworldly biological textiles, the Bioesters textile isn’t a product ready to be sold. Rather, it shows what’s possible for sustainable fabric rather than deliver a finished product.


Harnessing the Power of Slime
Other projects explores sustainable architecture, such as Float Farm by New York University architecture students Ayaka Habu, Carter Bird, and Theo Mandin-Lee. Designing for a future where sea levels have risen and swallowed the edges of coastal towns, the students created a floating mobile farm that is powered by algae grown on the rooftop and harvested for biofuel. Meanwhile, a group of students from Southern California Institute of Architecture created a project called Mutua that harnesses lichen or slime mold to create colorful wall art that doubles as an air purifier.

The Sticky Genius of Spider Webs
Two University of Pennsylvania students–Ji won Woo, who is getting her master’s in fine arts, and Mónica Butler, who is working toward a master’s in integrated product design–furthered an idea that’s been explored in biodesign before: a super-strong synthetic version of making spider’s silk. Spiders are generally considered to be solo operators when it comes to building their webs, but Woo and Butler found that several spiders could work together to build thicker, stronger webs–as long as they were fed an adequate amount of prey to prevent in-fighting. The pair harnessed the electrostatic properties of spider webs that allow them to attract small particles, designing an air purifying mask made of spiders’ web. They also designed a habitat where spiders would live together peacefully and co-build the webs that would eventually become cartridges for the masks.

All of the finalists’ projects are still in the conceptual or prototyping phase, but they offer an exciting look into what’s possible in the emerging world of biotech. They also show the benefits of working across disciplines–even while still in school. Just like architects, engineers, and contractors work together to realize a building, it will take the partnership of designers and scientists to design the sustainable solutions of the future.

See all the projects here.

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.