'Super Cells – Building With Biology' – The Hope (And Hype) of Bio-Design [Book Review]

Super Cells book cover

Part ‘history of’, part ‘how to’, and a good portion hype, Super Cells ~ Building With Biology, by Nina Tandon and Mitchell Joachim, is a fascinating, inspiring, and not-infrequently self-promoting/congratulating celebration of the “collision of Biology, Design and Digital Fabrication.”

The book heralds a new movement referred to as bio-design (or biodesign) in which diverse designers appropriate the tools and methods of bio-engineering as well as a relatively new scientific discipline called synthetic biology (note: synthetic biology seeks to synthetically replicate cellular and biological processes and mechanisms for human ends) to ostensibly “transform” the whole of modern society and culture.

Biodesign, according to co-author and architect Mitchell Joachim, is the “cure for affluenza” and, in the long evolutionary path of human society, “is the next step toward a resilient harmony where human kind and Nature seamlessly blend.”

Taking us from Medicine (focusing on tissue engineering — the most practical and valuable use for such super cells) and Architecture to Fashion, Food and Art/Entertainment, Super Cells — a TED Book — is replete with momentous declarations like “The time of building with living cells has arrived”(!) and generous pepperings of techno-hep buzz phrases like “disruptive technology” and “paradigm shift”, along with a plethora of bio-techno neologisms and eco-ethical sentiments.

For those living without the Internet for the past half dozen years, the annual TED (which stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design) conference has spawned innumerable ‘TED talk” videos — known for their provocative topics, cool visuals, and often over-hyped achievements and speculative predictions — and, more recently, TED Books.

Super Cells, at a mere 72 pages in length, is none-the-less rich with “super” cellular experiments and explorations inspired by this new bio-aesthetic. The book is comprised of six chapters covering the spectrum of biodesign endeavors and innovations: 1] Medicine: Living Devices, 2] Architecture: Grow a Home, 3] Fashion: Cellular Atelier, 4] Food: Ranch in a Lab, 5] Art: Cellular Muses, 6] Entertainment: Biotic Games.

Chapters 2 and 5 are written by Joachim, the remainder by Tandon. The two styles of writing generally work well enough (like inter-woven branches, one being a bit thicker) with Tandon’s writing being a more technical and serious sounding, and Joachim’s writing being a bit more fluid and “arty”. The ebook’s introduction is a tad unpolished but manages to lay out the basic ideas of the book — enjoining the reader to “imagine the possibilities”…and lists ”self-healing bridges, plentiful human body parts, high-tech fabrics…” as just a sampling of the marvels awaiting us in this brave, new, bio-designed world. It almost sounds utopian. Indeed, a barely restrained eco-techno-utopianism pervades most of the content of the book.

Those Marvelous Bio-Designers and Their Cellular Dreams

In the opening chapter, Tandon takes us on a speedy tour of tissue engineering advances and innovative technology (including 3D printing of cells/tissue), while earnestly declaring her vision of a world which embraces “biology as a perfect technological partner.”

Although quite idealistic in spirit, it is an appropriate idealism (for the purposes of the book) and sets the aesthetic and technical stages for the more fanciful and conceptual applications of biodesign technology to come. Tandon, a bioengineer, uses a bio-reactor as her primary tool (others use a “perfusion chamber” which serves a similar function) for generating species of “super cell”, with a focus on generating structural tissue cells such as bone, cartilage and muscle cells.

This chapter also introduces us to the “work horse” super cell of this nascent movement: Acetobacter xylinum. The aerobic, rod-shaped bacterium — not to be confused with species of Acetobacterium — is renowned for its synthesis of cellulose (a useful and “plastic” structural material produced usually/only by plants). Apparently, one of the research labs collaborating with the designers bio-engineered a strain of the bug to produce much more cellulose than normal, thus helpfully industrializing its own natural function. In doing so, a new (or derivative) life form (a new genotype and phenotype) has been created here and is introduced to the bioengineering laboratory ecosystem (and the world).

Apart from her tissue engineering experiments — primarily to provide transplantable tissue and organs (Tandon doesn’t see anything resembling “the ‘body shop’ of replacement parts” any time soon) — Tandon seeks a broader experimental and ethical goal: replacing murine models (“mouse avatars”) used in laboratory testing with purely cellular models derived from the patients themselves. Presumably, she is referring here to forms of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) though the term ‘iPS cells’ does not occur until several chapters later. This is a laudable goal — and one that resonates with this author’s own bio-tech/design efforts — but not one to be realized anytime soon, as there are various technical obstacles to making this a standard practice.

As a main example, there is a pervasive problem in bio-tech: results of in vitro models commonly fail in predicting in vivo/clinical effects (this is possibly due to the unique “microenvironment” of in vivo cells and also crucial signaling from the extracellular matrix). Patient-specific cell models (as with iPS cells) are a big step in that direction, but a superior platform technology (utilizing said cells as, for example, drug testing models) has not quite arrived, yet. But, insofar as this is “a brief history of” type e-book, and a cell-ebration (couldn’t resist that one) we are offered but the scantest hints of these challenges.

Nonetheless, Tandon is a committed believer in the transformative power of this technology, which will usher in “a more efficient, more natural technological revolution”. Like many of the sentiments expressed herein, Tandon’s are grand, if not grandiose; we learn of her vision “to show what the world might look like if more of our technology were to be grown from living cells”, the purpose of which is to “to change the way we live and how we think about life itself.”bioengineered tissue

[image insert, right] Medicine – scaffolds Scientists at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine are using 3-D printing technology to build organ and tissue scaffolds. Living cells added to the scaffolds then grow into their forms. The scaffolds made of synthetic polymers or hydrogels then biodegrade, leaving just the living material behind. Shown here are scaffolds for prototypes of a finger bone, an ear, and a kidney. All are experimental and not yet ready for patients. Image: Courtesy of Wake Forest University

If this isn’t high-minded enough for you, there are more such sentiments to come.

The book’s second chapter, Architecture: Grow a Home, written by architect Mitchell Joaquim, is a natural/logical bridge from the first chapter; we move from physiological architecture (bone, muscle, cartilage) to environmental/structural architecture meant to house the human animal. Joachim focuses on three of his conceptual architectural works: FabTreeHab, Gen2Seat, and a project prosaically titled “meat house.”

Joachim’s asserts that his architectural aesthetic derives from the likes of Thoreau, Emerson and Tolkien and is infused with an expressed desire to go beyond mere solar panels on rooftops to “redefine sustainable building”. In FAbTreeHAb, a post-doc project exploiting the construction technique of pleaching (in which branches, vines, etc. are interwoven or grafted on to each other; note: tree species like elm, oak, and dogwood are self-grafting), Joachim comes close to realizing the penultimate manifestation of his (“not built, but grown”) aesthetic: in constructing a habitat made almost completely from natural living matter (the trees having been grown for the project and never chopped or cut, the pleaching covered with a “protective layer of fast-growing vines, interspersed with soil pockets and additional plants”) the entirety of which, he claims, is edible at some point in the respective life cycles of the materials (note: except for the clay used to support and texture the structure).

I say “close” to his expressed aesthetic, because he does include reference to the creation and use of  “hydrocarbon bonded polymers” that were apparently introduced during the construction process. Presumably, these might take longer to digest (and could be naturally derived, or synthetic). Still, Joachim’s efforts here were mostly successful and a laudable response to his eco-conscious rhetorical question: “Why not grow part of your home instead of extracting vital planetary resources?” Indeed — assuming enough resources (e.g., trees) and space for everyone to do this — why not?

His Gen2Seat effort, though, would seem to be the most “pure” and practical of Joachim’s cellular creations; made almost entirely of cellulose, the chair, when past its prime, is “compostable in a garden – not thrown into a landfill like an IKEA product.” Joachim here describes a construction process and Acetobacter-derived material that is comprised of “mycelium blocks combined with a modified new bio-polymer”. I will note that here Joachim uses the term “bio-polymer”, not simply “polymer”; it is not clear if the new bio-polymer was made — or just renamed — to justify the use of a synthetic bonding substance in these eco-conscious creations. The architect is not afraid of engaging in a bit of bio-engineering whimsy either; Joachim expresses his desire to some day create “a novel strain that secretes chitin” (the structural protein that forms the exoskeletons of arthropods, like insects, crustaceans).

Joachim tells us that the ultimate goal of his architectural experimentation is to “create products more organically with minimal waste and energy expenditure.” It is not clear if Joachim considers the bacterium itself as one of these products and if he has ever conducted an energy budget analysis for their production in quantity.

It is at this point that Joachim takes a qualitative conceptual leap, by asking: “Why limit living organic homes to only materials made of plant life?” And so, we get Joachim’s more “controversial” cellular creation: the “meat house”, or, as he describes it, an “in vitro meat habitat” (made in collaboration with two spin-off/start-up bio-design labs). The habitat — made from cultured pig muscle cells — was apparently a proof of principle for Jaochim, and is actually a “non-perishable prototype” (actual dimensions are just 11 x 3 x 7 inches). According to Joachim, it was “not meant to be an actualized as a full house, but it serves as a highly informed case study for growing large volume of in vitro material (meat) en masse.” Joachim emphasizes — just in case the meaning of the phrase in vitro escapes the reader — that no harm came to any animal (it is a “victimless shelter”, which is a perhaps a riff on the pioneering “victimless leather” artwork noted in Chapter 5) and asserts his motive not to grow a full size house but to test the “potential architectural implications.” But, if not to grow a full-sized house, or structure, what would these other “architectural implications” be?

in vitro meat habitatThis may have been a post-facto, “art-speak” rationalization for the diminutive dimensions of the model habitat resulting from the realization (early on) that it would take an enormous quantity of pig cells (and that equals lab time, money, and resources) to make an actual meat house. In this, we have just one of many cool and cutting edge ideas and projects, enumerated in the pages of Super Cells, that, in practice, do not quite live up to their promise, yet; they are impractical for every-day applications, insofar as they require access to bioreactors and/or other high-tech bio-lab equipment (and large volumes of cells).

[image insert, above right] Architecture – Meat house – Pig skin cells, grown into this shape in Terreform ONE’s lab, make up the walls, floor, and ceiling of this prototype home. The model is non-perishable and measures 11 inches long. Image: Courtesy of Mitchell Joachim, Terreform ONE

I should note here that most of these cellular creations were accomplished via collaborations with small, independent, commercial labs (e.g. FabTreeHab was made in collaboration with TERRAFORM 1), or academic-affiliated labs (such as the oft-cited University of  Australia-based lab SymbioticA).

The chapter on fashion (Fashion: Cellular Atelier) begins with a critique of what clothing designer Suzanne Lee calls “fast fashion” where the time to market for fashion products has gone from months to weeks to even twice weekly. Clothing is discarded at an “alarming rate” (the book notes that 13 million tons of clothing are disposed of each year in the US). Lee notes that much of our contemporary clothing is composed of polyesters (oil-based end-products) which are hazardous to the ecology, and so, the chapter details Lee’s efforts to develop a new fabric, and in particular, one made from a concoction of green tea, sugar (food source for the microbes), acetic acid (from apples; vinegar) and a culture of bacteria and yeast. The result of this new alchemy is the production of cellulosic nanofibrils (“strong as titanium and aluminum”) with the goal of replacing said polyesters and, ultimately, replacing cotton (an extremely water-intensive crop) and, eventually, even wood. Here, Lee is thinking decades down the road — borrowing the current science and tools pioneered by biologist and materials scientist David Hepworth.

This is certainly a noble and worthwhile, eco-minded goal, even if the initial products are a bit less than optimal. Lee critiques her own work by noting that her first foray with the new fabric (a jacket) was not a total success: it was “imperfectly composed” but still wearable and notable for its dramatic decrease in water usage (by a factor of 10). The jacket, as it turned out, responded to the ambient atmosphere (humid or dry) by expanding or shrinking, thus the material itself would be best used to make outerwear (a rather humorous observation when one contemplates shrinking/expanding underwear) as it more closely acted like a “super absorbent sponge”. Lee’s forthright attitude towards her own work is refreshing, and, this accidental property of the material may have utility beyond clothing, thus also showing that there is value in pure experimentation (even amongst non-scientists).

Looking forward, Lee seeks to develop a “hydrophobic cellulose” (to alleviate the shrinking/expanding underwear effect) and even what she terms “cosmeceuticals” — a hybrid of cosmetics and apparel (and presumably pharmaceuticals {?} as the term would seem to convey, or perhaps the phoneme/morpheme “ceut” is a play on “suit”?). It is not clear from the writing just how these cosmeceuticals will function in real-life.

[image insert, lower right] Fashion – jacket – Biodesigner Suzanne Lee grew the all-natural fabric for this BioRuff jacket from cellulose-producing bacteria. The jacket was commissioned to Lee and her company, Biocouture, by the Science Museum London for its exhibition “Trash Fashion: Designing Out Waste,” in collaboration with Imperial College London. Image ©Biocouture Ltd. 2014, photo by Santiago Arribascellular jacket

The remaining chapters continue and expand on the super cell theme and medium and make for some interesting reading. The chapter called Food: Ranch in a Lab details what is perhaps the most obvious use for super cells (next to tissue engineering): making/synthesizing food, in particular, meat, or meat (high protein) substitutes. Much of this work has been covered in the popular scientific press in just the past year. For the sake of a slightly shorter review, I will skip over this chapter (important as it is) and encourage folks to read up on this topic; a good place to start is my older PS article: The Race to Make Fake Meat – Saving Animals and the Planet (and Disrupting the  Meat Industry).

The final two chapters bring the super cell movement and medium fully into the realm of human culture (if you pardon the unintentional pun) as we are given a fairly decent summary and history of recent experiments — from the mid 1990’s forward — in “bio-art”, and, more recently, “biotic games.”

In the chapter titled Art: Cellular Muses we encounter another grandiose, and admittedly provocative proclamation: “The old adage that art imitates life has been officially subverted. Now art literally is life.” Well some of it is, anyway. This is a slight exaggeration; it is true — in the context of super cells — if we discount the great many past “natural” and/or living art works (produced by eco-artists since at least the late 1960’s), and, those works made from (uncultured or un-engineered) cells that are no longer living. But, the reader understands what is meant, presumably, and, by now, has likewise come to expect such statements.

This is not to discredit at all the artists who are working specifically with the products and tools of the new technology, and truly, the artistic works described herein are intriguing, scientifically cutting-edge, and conceptually potent.

As recently as 2013, a trio of “bio-artists” (Guy Ben-Ary, Kirsten Hudson, and Mark Lawson) working out of the (previously noted) SymbioticA lab at the University of Western Australia, created a work entitled ‘In Potentia’ that utilized cutting edge, induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cell science — specifically, a technique known as cell reprogramming* — to transform foreskin cells into neurons and then into a larger mass of neural tissue (in fact, any cell type, save for placental cells, can be reprogrammed this way). Though not actually a brain, the mass of cultured neural tissue was able to generate electrical impulses and was here described (somewhat redundantly) as a “biological brain”. At that point, out intrepid bio-artists encased the tissue in a “custom sculptural incubator” which included “a life-support system, an electrophysiological device, and a custom-made electrophysiological recording setup consisting of an array of micro-electrodes that measured neural activity.” This neural activity was them digitally converted into a “haunting soundscape” (note: this artwork was a collaboration with Backyard Brains, co-founded by TED alumnus Greg Gage).

And, of course, what high concept art work would be complete without a high-blown artistic rationale, which has something to do with challenging “Western culture’s fetishisation of consciousness.” Now, possibly, the artists mean sexual fetishization, and hence the choice to reprogram foreskin cells into brain cells, or, maybe they mean the strictest sense of fetish: a potent object of psychic fixation. But a concise explanation or even deconstruction of this terminology is not to be found here.

Other cellular artworks are noted here. Of particular note is Andre Brodyk’s work with a genetically “transformed” strain of bacteria, using it to draw red, luminescent images that slowly fade and vanish over time, in an provocative paralleling of the deterioration of memory seen in Alzheimer’s Disease (although it is not clear the precise connection between the bacterium and the disease, other than its utility for the concept).

Additionally, SymbioticA lab founder/director Oron Catts and his artist collaborator (and wife), Ionat Zurr, are given ample space for their nearly two decade’s worth of bio-art experimentation — beginning with their Tissue Culture and Art Project of 1996, which ultimately gave birth to SymbioticA. This seminal project produced numerous provocative works, including ‘Pig Wings’ which consisted of “three tiny sets of wings grown from pig-bone-marrow stem cells.” (the association of pigs and wings perhaps reflecting the initial reactions to these early cellular art visions by the public, i.e., “when pigs fly”).

As for their motive and aesthetic philosophy, artists Catts and Zurr claim to be addressing a widening gap “between our cultural perceptions of life and what we are able to do to it through technology.” And, it is this “gap that makes most of us uneasy” (as in that famous image of a mouse with a human ear growing out of its back) into which Catts and Zurr step with their fantastical, flesh-based artworks, desiring the public to be  “confronted and challenged.” The use of cells (whether reprogrammed, “transformed”, or bio-engineered) raises a host of ethical questions — many of which (both serious and trivial) are raised and addressed in the final sections of each chapter. However, in “confronting and challenging” the public via the ethically murky use of cellular life forms, one first has to do the ethically challenging (or questionable) thing, i.e., make stuff with bio-engineered super cells. As such, these ethical issues become secondary (and symbolic) considerations, if not complete afterthoughts. I will return to this point in my concluding critique.

In the final chapter of Super Cells (Entertainment: Biotic Games) we are presented with the most recent (apparently) of super-cellular applications: “living video games”. Pioneered primarily by a bioengineering group from Stanford University led by bioengineer Ingmar Riedel-Kruse, these undeniably curious efforts sprung from Riedel-Kruse — in one of those legendary”aha!” moments — one day asking himself: Why can’t we make video games using modern biotechnology? Indeed, it would not be the first time that mastery of a technology has led to the creation of a game or sport.

In these biotic games, the “pieces” are microbes (contained in a game console) which respond to commands (e.g., when in contact with a local electric field) manipulated via a standard game controller. The mechanism of response here is described as the galvanotactic response (note: “galvanic” refers to an electrical potential, after the discoverer of the bio-electrical response, Galvani, in the late 18th Century). In an alternative form of control, the chemotactic response is exploited in order to control the movement of the unicellular organisms, where the microbial response is to a shifting gradient of nutrient chemicals, enabled by the controller. All of this biotic gaming occurs through real-time imaging (via a microscopic camera) of paramecia superimposed upon a virtual game scape.

All the entertaining elements of a mainstream video game are present; Riedel-Kruse’s bio-engineering group has so far produced several cute-sounding microbial games such as Ciliaball (a soccer-like game using paramecia to “kick” a ball into one of two goals),  PAC-mecium, (paramecia forage for virtual food while trying to escape hungry zebrafish larva),  Microbash (the microbes must destroy virtual bricks to free a fellow cartoon paramecium), and POND PONG (inspired by PONG, players use chemicals to push paramecia toward the other player’s side).

Now, this use of living cells raises more obvious ethical questions, such as the ethics of exploiting living cell behavior for entertainment purposes. But Riedel-Kruse is prepared for these and offers a compelling and convincing rationale: science education. Riedel-Kruse suggests that such biotic diversions could captivate youngsters and stimulate interest in biology through “interacting with biological processes, without dealing with the rigor of conducting a formal experiment.” Ah yes, Science without the science…captive cells as educational aid, quite clever. The team’s research has been published under open access conventions but the author also notes that Riedel-Kruse has filed for a patent on the basic bio-game technology.

With the acknowledgement that the organisms inhabiting these game consoles need to be cared for (and kept alive, for at least some reasonable period of time), the author (Tandon) notes that such biotic games have generated a “vigorous bioethics debate”, and offers us questions like:  Are the organisms harmed? What kinds of interactions with organisms are considered positive, acceptable, or negative? The author even goes so far as to bring “free will” into question; when responding to the manipulated energy field, do the microbes “lose their freedom of choice?” This last question seems a bit of an ethical over-reach. Such “gamer” cells can be viewed simply as pets — to be cared for as any other for the duration of its normal life span. They may live shorter lives, and certainly they can be inadvertently harmed (maybe even abused) — and we certainly use other pets for our enjoyment — but they are in these respects the same; no one seriously asks if a domesticated dog, tethered to a leash, or fenced in a yard, loses it “freedom of choice”. That said, placing microbes in the path of a hungry zebrafish larvae would seem to be the microscopic analog of the human expression “throwing a babe to the wolves” (or similar). Perhaps for this reason, Riedel-Krusee espouses game designs that are “pleasant, purposeful, and generating positive perspective versus scary scenarios.”

But these broader questions or observations concerning the attitude of the biotic game players are certainly interesting, culturally and psychologically speaking. For example, as entertainment, one might quickly develop a sense of mastery over Nature, or even of “playing god.” This may be less of an ethical issue than a human ego issue and may well have bearing on societal attitudes towards non-human life forms.

The final chapter finishes up with an interview with  software engineer and mobile apps developer Keith Comito, who sees greater import and grander creative possibilities  (of course) in these biotic diversions, including “massively multiplayer online games in which people communicate with each other via other living creatures, self-reflexive systems in which organisms control themselves in ways they never have before, or generative musical applications in which the composers are single cells.” Wow…but there’s more: Comito ends with what is perhaps the grandest super-cellular vision in the entire book (no easy feat, that), inviting us all  “…to consider a future where we find a way to cooperate with organisms of every scale. Such an approach, characterized by partnership with, rather than subjugation and destruction of, nature has the potential to foster the sustainable future all of us want, and can achieve.”

Who could not be seduced by such grandiloquence?

*The cell reprogramming (to generate iPS cells) technique is more recent and advanced and much less controversial as it does not require destruction of embryonic stem cells as earlier techniques did.

Further Ethical Considerations and Concluding Critique ~ The Vision and the Reality

To the authors’ credit, they duly anticipate many of the ethical questions that this type of work raises (and several that seem rather forced or contrived). But one cannot help but feel that these questions are raised mostly as after thoughts, for, were they truly of paramount (non trivial) importance to the diverse designers featured here, it would seem that some of these cellular design experiments would not have been undertaken in the first place. No, the main motive that comes through here is to do something really cool and cutting edge in the realm of Art & Science (or simply new technology). Once one has done so, one is free to raise or anticipate any number of ethical questions or criticisms (indeed, it would seem that such bio-designers must do so, to cover themselves, as it were) and thus placing themselves within the dialogue — the ethical debate — that has only been raised (outside of some medical science uses) by these very same biodesign efforts.

I suspect that this TED book will prove to be of fairly wide public interest, and perhaps even spark some of the societal debate (over using living cells in these new ways) that the authors seem to want to encourage. However,  I also feel that some of this ethical questioning is symbolic or token…some even seem a bit naïve of over-blown. Some are just fuzzy, like Tandon’s question: “In the future of brain-tissue engineering, could we potentially engineer truly sentient beings in the dish?” Well, given that all cells must sense their environments to survive and grow and even ward off attacks from other cells, they would already seem to be sentient. Tandon uses the word “sentient”, seemingly, to indicate a “new” or emergent state beyond the actual sentient state of these cells (yet not quite a fully-grown being in the conventional sense). However, it is not clear how distinct this state would be from what already occurs in labs all over the world. Perhaps she refers here to the so-called “mini-organs” (e.g., brain tissue structures) recently reported in the popular science news. This is not explained further. To answer this question may mean redefining what it is “to be sentient” (there is yet a role for the philosopher here!). Perhaps that was her point, I don’t know, as the question is asked, but no attempt at an answer is really put forth.

But the questioning does bring one unmentioned ethical distinction into focus: the distinction between a living unicellular organism (e.g. a bacterium) and a living human or animal cell. Both types of cells start out alive, then are variously exploited, and then die. Does our concern for their fates vary depending on their animal origin? Curiously, this question or distinction is never raised.

This question of sentience can be carried through to its logical end with the (possible) de novo creation of a living “being” or entity. When that happens, the ethical question will have more import and cogency. In any case, laboratories (in Japan) will soon be permitted to “grow” pigs from transplanted embryos with transfected human genes for growing (within the body of the animal) various extra organs intended for human transplants (these animals are known generally as chimeras). At some point in its laboratory lifespan, of course, the chimera will die. It would seem that the ethical rules that apply here would certainly also apply in Tandon’s questioned case, if not more so.

'ghost heart' (RMR Labs, THI)[image insert, right] Medicine – ghost heart – This decellularized “ghost heart” can serve as a scaffold upon which to grow a working heart from human stem cells. Researchers at the Texas Heart Institute created it by stripping all the living cells from a pig heart with a soap solution, which bursts the cells and leaves only the protein structure behind. The scientists have successfully implanted tissue-engineered hearts into rats and pigs so far. They hope ultimately to create personalized human hearts and thus relieve the shortage of donor organs. Image: Courtesy of RMR Labs, Texas Heart Institute

For myself, the primary ecological and ethical concerns underlying biodesign are 1] engineering new strains of microbial life to serve the purposes of the designers (which raises ecological and biological “tampering” concerns), and, 2] living up to the ecological aesthetic (and standard) propounded by these various designers.

In regards to the former concern, we learn of an altered (bioengineered) and improved form of bacteria that Tandon (and Lee, presumably) use in their experiments , and later, Joachim mentions his desire to create a novel microbe that secrets the protein chitin (normally produced by arthropods), while bio-artist Brodyk uses a “transformed” (i.e., genetically altered) bacterium . From the remainder of the text, we easily infer that other such engineered improvements (to microbes) are to come in the near future. I am not necessarily opposed to this in all cases (in fact, it’s done rather routinely in bio-tech research labs). However, many might have reservations about DIY genomic tampering of this kind (imagine the creative possibilities: basement ‘citizen biologists’ engineering new strains of bacteria). Although the authors do question the use and exploitation (as with Riedel-Kruse’s patent) of super cells, there is nary a mention of any ethical concern with the genetic and genomic tampering (by non-scientists especially) used to acquire them.  If Joachim’s vision of a chitin-producing bacterium were achieved, it would be, technically, a transgenic life form, for although bacteria do indeed “swap” genes, they generally do not do so with different phyla  or taxonomic domains (i.e., a bacteria incorporating chitin-producing genes from arthropoda), with the possible exception of some gut microbiota. The ethical justifications for these new cellular creations is not addressed.

In regards to the latter concern, designer Suzanne Lee claims a ”reduced ecological footprint” in her cellular designs — which I do not reject entirely — if one is comparing her technique with conventional fashion design processes — but to be rigorous and thorough (and conduct due diligence), one must include the sourcing of every component in one’s supply chain, and that must include the tech used to make or facilitate these bio-designed fashions. This is not a trivial thing, for often (as noted earlier with Joachim’s creations) non-sustainable or ecologically harmful materials lurk hidden even in the most high-minded and eco-conscious efforts. And while Lee asserts the non-necessity of having a lab (to produce the cell by-products), many of these experiments are the result or product of bio-laboratory operations and technologies (bio-reactors, perfusion chambers, etc.). At one point, Joachim actually refers to the need to acquire “machine parts” and lab equipment to achieve a certain experimental end product. Such machines and equipment, and their construction materials and waste products, are the result of manufacturing processes that are far from environmentally friendly (even with standards and regulations). These materials are apparently not included in the ecological calculus of these biodesign efforts.

In conventional commercial industries, such things are known as “externalities” as they are “external” to the profit-loss calculations of the industry (note: pollution and waste are the primary externalities, unaccounted for, in most heavy industries). For example, were these materials “sourced” for minimal ecological impact? Metals (for machine parts) can be acquired through recycling technology, or, in their ore form from mining, which then must be refined considerably (a highly-polluting process). Also, lab equipment often involves plastics and silicon, both of which pose various environmental hazards. And, lastly, perhaps most fundamental to the cells’ existence in the first place, there is the sugar upon which our super cells must feed (is its source a sugarcane plantation that replaced a forest?). I do not mean to nit pick, but if one’s goal is a “new harmony with Nature”, and, if one is going to refer to one’s creation (as Joachim does with the meat house) as “unsullied Nature itself”, then one must account for such things, if one wishes to be taken seriously (and serve as a guide for future, sustainable, cellular creations).

But I don t wish to harp on this point excessively. The artists and designers we are introduced to here appear to have a clear ethos and eco-consciousness (if rather utopian at times) and I have little doubt that this mindfulness (and perhaps this review) will guide their future efforts in this realm. Further, I could not honestly review this book and not admit my belief in the intrinsic value and validity of most of these experiments in biodesign.

As to the limited access to synthetic biology tools (and labs), the authors are looking beyond this limitation and envision the tools of synthetic biology and bio design becoming available, in some form, to the masses. And this is indeed happening with the emerging DIY Bio movement. But, as featured apparel designer Suzanne Lee states: “You don’t need a bio lab. You don’t need to be a scientist.” Perhaps not, but it helps if one has friends with a lab, or, are real scientists (and if the would-be bio-designer has some working knowledge of biology and bio-chemistry).

There is one other major challenge facing a potential bio-designed future — if one truly believes this technology can/will “transform” the whole of modern society and culture — and that is scalability. This expansion of the scale of production (even for individuals seeking practical uses) would seem to be a prerequisite for such a grand societal impact. This, of course, means actualizing some type of mass production, and this, in turn, means commercialization (whether for everyday consumer or industrial usage). These factors will need to be addressed, or completely circumvented/superseded (e.g., through adoption solely by individuals for their own practical living purposes, via 3D printing tech), in order to bring us closer to the harmonious partnership and relationship with Technology and Nature envisioned by our intrepid bio-designers.

Super Cells ends with an Afterword that seeks to tie together the various creative efforts described in the chapters and ground the book’s content in an ethical framework. As noted earlier in the book, our two authors are “both in the business of designing environments that are meant to protect and nurture living things” and certainly, this “business” endeavor manages to come through, though sometimes, it struggles to do so; it is not always clear how this protection and nurturing is fulfilled or effected through these (admittedly) fascinating applications of cellular “technology”. My impression as to the point of this afterword (reflecting the overall content) is to solidify the territorial claims of the noted cellular pioneers (the two authors included), cross promote each other’s science-biodesign social networks, and suggest future collaborative possibilities amongst these same “players”.

Perhaps to off-set this motive, the authors eventually assert their ultimate purpose here, which is to “cause an explosion of innovation around grown materials”. And with that, there is what seems to be a final “handing over of the torch” to those — yet to arrive on the scene — who will further usher us into this wondrous future world of biodesign.

Thank you, oh marvelous biodesign pioneers!

Here’s a link to the TED Books webpage for Super Cells: Building With Biology





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