Over the past few years, a group of researchers at the MIT Media Lab have designed workout clothes and running shoes made with fabric with pores that open when you sweat, using bacteria that contract in humid conditions.
But not every designer can engineer bacteria. It takes a huge amount of technical know-how to create these kinds of materials. That’s why MIT Media Lab alum and designer Helene Steiner, who worked on the original project, spun off and created her own company called Cell-Free Tech with the goal of making biodesign more accessible.
Today, Steiner and her three co-founders are launching their first product: Bixels, a very basic DNA computer with a biological display.
Here’s the simple version of how it works. DNA is the biological version of code. Every cell has a mini “manufacturing plant,” as Steiner calls it, that takes the instructions from the DNA and produces things like proteins and enzymes. The Cell-Free Tech team has taken these manufacturing plants, called ribosomes, out of their cells. From there, they can feed them any DNA they want. In this case, they’re feeding them the DNA code to create green fluorescent protein that can be found in jellyfish.
The DNA processing works a bit like a Gameboy, Steiner explains. The manufacturing plant won’t do anything unless you slot in a “cartridge”–the DNA–which will allow you to play one type of game (or make one type of protein). But there are a lot of different games (and proteins) you can play.
Bixels, which launches on Kickstarter today, is almost like a real-life version of Steiner’s Gameboy metaphor for DNA. Their biological cocktail made of the ribosomes (Steiner calls it a cell smoothie) sits in each of the 64 “bixels” on the small device’s display. You can use an app to “turn on” each point–an electronic signal causes an LED to light up, which in turn stimulates the manufacturing plants to make their protein. To the human eye, the proteins glow green, and you can program them to light up with certain patterns–or even use them to play a game of bio-Tetris.
Bixels comes as a flat-pack kit that you can fold together along with the cell smoothie, a basic electronic circuit, and DNA. It’s primarily an educational tool–though not for young children, even if Steiner says that a very simplified version could be used in the classroom. It’s more for older students, like the ones that Steiner teaches at the Royal College of Art in London. She recently did a workshop using Bixels to teach fashion design students about biodesign and how they could incorporate biological materials into the clothes they make. The students had no experience with either biology or electronics. “People said, no way, it’s impossible that I’m capable of doing this,” Steiner says. But by the end of the workshop, “people really started discussing how they’d like to use it: to integrate into fibers, create accessories, how it could react to indicate your pH.”
Right now, you control Bixels using an off-the-shelf app, which lets you draw pictures and make patterns using the biological Gameboy. If the Kickstarter campaign is successful, the team will be able to make their own custom app.
The product release will also fuel the team’s own research into biomaterials, particularly around using the cell-free biological extract that’s used in Bixels to design smart materials and textiles. But there are also applications in furthering other biotech research. “It can almost be a prototyping platform to figure out how cells function,” Steiner says. “You can test out different sequences that contain the code without having the need to actually grow bacteria, which is complicated, costly, and intensive.” Steiner says their ultimate ambition is to run a “cloud lab,” where scientists can send them DNA code and they can test it out using their cell-free technology.
The team started Cell-Free Tech about six months ago with the mission to bring biotechnology outside of the walled gardens of research, big pharma, and the food industry, and to involve people from different fields: the founding team has backgrounds in robotics, physics, design, and biology. Bixels is their first step toward that goal. “We all had this vision that we want to see biotech going in a direction that’s accessible to people,” Steiner says. “[Bixels] is an invitation to really understand how you could build the most basic biocomputers.”