Synthetic biology startups can help create cities of the future
Can We Redesign The Modern City With Synthetic Biology? Could We Grow Our Houses Instead Of Building Them?
Imagine waking up every morning in a house that is just as alive as you are. With synthetic biology, your future home could be a living, breathing marvel of nature and biotechnology. Yes, it’s a bold ambition. But this kind of visionary thinking could be the key to achieving sustainability for modern cities.
Our current homes and cities are severely outdated. Dr. Rachel Armstrong, a synthetic biologist and experimental architect, says, “All our current buildings have something in common: they’re built using Victorian technologies.” Traditional design, manufacturing, and construction processes demand huge amounts of energy and resources, but the resulting buildings give nothing back.To make our future sustainable, we need dynamic structures that give as much as they take. We need to build with nature, not against it.
In nature, everything is connected. For the world’s tallest trees—the California redwoods— their lives depend on their connection to each other as well as on a host of symbiotic organisms. Winds and rain batter the California coast, so redwoods weave their roots together for stability, creating networks that can stretch hundreds of miles.The rains also leach nutrients from the soil. But fungi fill the shortage by breaking down dead organic matter into food for the living. A secondary network of mycelia—the root-like structures of the fungi—entwine with the tree roots to transport nutrients, water, and chemical communications throughout the forest. What if our future cities functioned like these symbiotic networks? What if our future homes were alive?
Living, breathing architecture
The Fab Tree Hab project embodies many of the advantages of living architecture. Unlike contemporary buildings, living structures absorb greenhouse gases instead of emitting them. They can self-assemble as well as self-repair. Need an extra room? Grow one. Durable, adaptive, the list of nature’s benefits goes on and on.
Architect and biotechnologist, David Benjamin, says, “Working with these biological systems and thinking about biology as part of a design palette might allow us to think of building less as single, static objects and more as dynamic systems that connect different locations.” These buildings have a lifespan that begin long before we think about constructing them and extend long after we’ve left.
The future bio-economy
In order to build living structures, we need a new kind of manufacturing ecosystem, a system that utilizes living technologies from the very beginning. Some of the earliest roots of this system have already taken hold.
Like the mycelia sustaining the redwoods, the humble fungi may be the organism that anchors and sustains the new bio-economy. Mycelia have gained increasing attention because they can be grown into a variety of shapes, densities, and textures. The resulting materials are biodegradable, highly insulating, non-toxic, and flame retardant. They are also pound-for-pound stronger than concrete.
Companies like Ecovative Design and MycoWorks have already developed commercial myco-materials including insulation, leather-like textiles, and sustainable packaging. Ecovative, in particular,— a longtime leader in the myco-materials space—aims to re-shape the future on a massive, skyscraper-sized scale. Building with mushrooms, known as mycotecture, is a critical step towards living houses.
Mycotecture isn’t some far-flung, futuristic dream; architects and bio-manufacturers are already working together. In 2014, David Benjamin used Ecovative myco-bricks to construct Hy-Fi, a curving, tower-like structure commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art. At the end of its lifespan, the installation was fully composted for use in local community gardens. This cycle of growth, reuse, and regrowth perfectly exemplifies the circular bio-economy of the future.
Growing our future, one house at a time
Projects like Hy-Fi are early snapshots of how synthetic biology can reshape –or, really, regrow—our society. Eventually, biomaterials like myco-bricks could remain alive, enabling structures to repair, expand, or adapt as needed.
The full bio-architectural revolution won’t happen overnight. But the next step— incorporating living organisms into our existing construction methods— is already underway.
On the façade of the BIQ House in Hamburg, Germany, panels of microalgae absorbs sunlight and passively generate heat for the entire building. This five-story apartment complex is the first algae-powered building in the world.
Algae is diverse class of organisms and its potential uses in a sustainable society are just as varied. In recent years, several projects have aimed to replace electric lights with bioluminescent algae. The latest venture, Danish company Allumen, is working to add algae’s bioluminescent genes to trees in an effort to replace street lamps which could sharply cut carbon emissions. Glowing, Avatar-esque plants are currently far from reality. Much more research is needed to understand how these plants would affect the local ecosystem. But this research is vital in the next stage of living cities.
Living organisms could also be used to fortify and repair existing structures. Dr. Rachel Armstrong proposes using photophobic protocells to stop Venice sinking into the sea. This synthetic biology-engineered reef could grow on Venice’s existing pylons, firmly anchoring the city even as ocean levels rise.
These kinds of projects aren’t just solo ventures by inspired futurists, bioengineers, and experimental architects. DARPA’s Engineered Living Materials (ELM) program — with whom Ecovative has a contract— is working to develop living biomaterials which can rapidly grow shelters in any number of challenging environments. Meanwhile, the European Union’s Living Architecture (LIAR) program aims to develop a modular bioreactor that could become “an integral component of human dwellings.”
Living architecture doesn’t just have to be confined to Earth. Synthetic biology can also grow new homes for us on other planets. Currently, NASA is investigating the potential of mycotecture habitats on Mars, while teams at Center of the Utilization of Biological Engineering in Space (CUBES) are developing closed-loop bio-manufacturing systems for space travel.
Achieving complete sustainability is critical to our survival as a species. Given our growing global population, dwindling resources, and the consequences of our climate crisis, building the future requires nothing short of a technological revolution. Synthetic biology unlocks the power of the greatest technology ever created: nature itself.
Thank you to Fiona Mischel for additional research and reporting for this article. Fiona is a freelance environmental and humanitarian tech writer and regular contributor for SynBioBeta.
Please note: am the founder of SynBioBeta, the innovation network for the synthetic biology industry. Some of the companies that I write about are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference (click here for a full list of sponsors).