Synthetic biology is a rapidly growing market, expected to reach $13.4 billion by 2019. Often called bioengineering or biodesign, the field is increasingly relevant to designers. Below, we explain what exactly biodesign is and why everyone working in design today should, at the very least, be aware of it.
Put simply, biodesign is the intersection between biology and design: It’s a growing movement (literally) of scientists, artists, and designers that integrates organic processes and materials into the creation of our buildings, our products, and even our clothing. That can mean, for example, growing a chair out of mycelium, the mushroom fungus that makes for a surprisingly durable material for furniture. It can mean actually altering the DNA of living organisms using genetic engineering techniques, such as with GMO foods.
Both of those examples are possible because of recent advancements in technology—another important aspect of biodesign. For centuries, people have been designing, controlling, and altering microorganisms—think pasteurization, or even selective breeding. But recent technological advances are raising the stakes. For example, digital design and fabrication tools, like 3D printers, enable Dutch designer Joris Laarman to build a chair modeled after bone tissue development. Advances in biological engineering have allowed synthetic biologists to fabricate leather by culturing collagen protein from animal cells, and genetically alter baker’s yeast to take on a flower’s fragrance.
Thanks to advances in computing, our machines can now read and write with DNA. When it comes to working with living organisms, we’re able to iterate faster and design with more precision. Proponents of biodesign see this as a way to build things and create products more sustainably, since living things grow and multiply with little energy, and could replace toxic materials. There’s no doubt that being able to engineer living systems will improve our quality of life by being kinder to our environment than current methods of building and industry—but it also brings up ethical concerns, as the ability to alter living organisms could have disastrous consequences in the wrong hands.
The rise of biodesign puts designers in a unique position. Some see bioengineering as the next wave of industry, meaning that industrial designers will be swapping plastic, metal, wood, and other materials that take energy to produce with living materials, like fungi or bacteria.
Others see biodesign as an entirely new design discipline, one in which synthetic biologists design synthetic meats, flavors, cosmetic ingredients, and other products by tweaking and manipulating DNA sequences. With computers that write DNA code like computer code, scientists have the ability to design and iterate through processes that look similar to the ones web designers use. In this sense, biologists become a new type of designer, working with a very powerful substrate: life.
The exciting thing about the emerging field of biodesign is that it is made up of both scientists and designers, and often the most significant projects are the ones that see the two disciplines partnering up. Artist and designers need the scientific know-how of biologists, while biologists benefit from the big-picture thinking and outside perspective of artists and designers. Equally as important, synthetic biology will have major implications for our future—from food to medicine to manufacturing—and will need designers to help communicate that to the broader public.
There are already efforts underway to bring designers and scientists together in this new field. The Biofabricate conference is coming up on its fourth year of bringing together entrepreneurs and designers, as well as companies like Nike and Microsoft, with biologists and bioengineering companies. The New York-based nonprofit Genspace promotes citizen access to biotechnology, and it paired with the Museum of Modern Art in 2016 for the first annual Biodesign Challenge—a contest pairing art and design students with biology students to come up with a new inventions. MoMA’s architecture and design curator Paola Antonelli, meanwhile, has long been a force in bringing biodesign to the layperson; in 2008, she curated the show Design and the Elastic Mind, the first major museum exhibition on the subject.
Here are some other key players in biodesign:
Ginkgo Bioworks: an organism design foundry based in Boston. The company, which last year received over $100 million in VC funding, is industrializing biodesign by mass-producing GMO flavors, fragrances, and cosmetic ingredients. In 2014, the company gained recognition by working with French perfumer Robertet to make a rose-scented perfume from genetically modified baker’s yeast—and the foundry has more than doubled its operation since then.
New Harvest: Founded in 2004, New Harvest is one of the early pioneers in the cultured meat movement. It is helping expand the pool of scientists and biodesigners working in the sphere by creating an open-source, standardized library of materials for biodesign—though the company is best known for growing a hamburger in a petri dish.
Modern Meadow: Modern Meadow grows collagen using synthetic biology tools, most notably to grow leather in a lab. While leather is the company’s primary commercial goal, it envisions a future in which lab-grown meat is available for the first time to some of the world’s poorest populations, for less economic and ecological cost.
Suzanne Lee: The chief creative officer for Modern Meadow, Suzanne Lee is a leader in biodesign and a fashion designer by training. She is best known for making clothing out of a kombucha-like bacterium. Now she is a TED fellow and an advocate for designers and scientists to work together as the founder of the Biofabricate conference.
To understand what we can anticipate, it’s helpful to look at GMO foods. According to the Pew Research Center, 88% of scientists agree that GMO foods are harmless, but that belief is held by only 37% of the general public—a statistic that suggests people are more fearful of it because it hasn’t been communicated properly, by scientists or through labeling.
Places like Ginkgo Bioworks, Modern Meadow, and New Harvest have made it clear that they plan to be transparent with their work. This will be important since biodesign can be complex to communicate, which can make it seem more nefarious than it actually is.
As for living materials, the industry still needs to move beyond novelty and into fully realized designs. At this point, we haven’t seen biodesigned materials make a significant impact on buildings or industrial design. But that will change in the next 10 years.
As with any emerging field, there are ethical concerns about how the new knowledge and skill set will be used. The primary concerns with biodesign have to do with the direction the field is headed: Now that it’s possible to edit genes of diverse organisms, will we eventually edit the genome of human embryos? As research progresses and technology catches up, there are also concerns about using it for harm, as with biological weapons. Growing meat in a lab brings up its own set of moral dilemmas, like the ethics of eating it as a vegetarian. The most important thing for all of these issues is for discussion to continue, for research and companies to be transparent, and for bioethicists to be diligent in bringing up potential problems.
Yes! Here are a few, and Co.Design will keep adding to the list as more is published on the field of biodesign:
Design and the Elastic Mind, a 2008 exhibition at MoMA, curated by Paola Antonelli
Tom Knight, Grandfather of Synthetic Biology, Fast Company