Synthetic biology entered our homes!!!
Synthetic biology is an area with mind-blowing applications. Biohackers in conjunction with bio-designers have brought this Sci-Fi-like area into our homes. As we know most of the things we use in our daily lives demand a great expenditure of energy and resources. And, these researchers-artists-creators understood that we must not deprive ourselves of these comforts, but rather that we must create sustainable solutions that replace them.
For this, bioinspiration in systems found in nature plays a central role. Thus, the manipulation of organisms for our benefit and that of the planet with initiatives that reach our home are increasingly close to all of us, this thanks to the fact that synthetic biology is also an area in which all its members seek the democratization of the use of all its tools with open source elements, development of cheap tools in what they have called the Frugal Science aspect and in the constant search for increasingly sustainable and healthy applications.
The first of the applications I want to talk about is one of the most ancient that we have applied, food! The fermentation processes have been extensively studied and for centuries they are being refined, this is how the Brazilian company Amyrs wants to come up with organizations specialized in the fermentation of the RebM compound in stevia and its obtaining process to give options of a sweetener that mimics the true taste of sugar but calorie-free. This to give a range of candy, chocolate, and cake options to the 450 million people with diabetes around the world. Another of the great applications in the food industry is the Impossible Food, in which they produce the heme group with yeast to give the flavor of vegetable meat that of an animal, this in response to contamination with ammonia, de-killing, use indiscriminate use of antibiotics and animal abuse in this food industry. And of course, it is healthy and sustainable food made by microorganisms is also served in plates made free of plastic derived from petroleum and if made with fungi and bacteria that biodegrade. Isn't this amazing?
And going from the table to our closet!! Did you know that the dyes in jeans are derived from petroleum and each pair of jeans we use uses more than 450 liters of water to be produced? Synthetic biologists in search of a more sustainable fashion industry have been inspired by the diverse colors of nature to color fabrics with pigments produced by fungi and bacteria as well as to create beautiful and elegant pieces with bacteria capable of forming biofilms that function as fabrics for clothing or even leather for clothing, shoes, and accessories.
Finally, I am going to sit on some furniture made with microorganisms!!! In my house made with mushroom bricks to end the day!! Incredibly, a whole space can be filled with things made by microorganisms.
During this week Juliana and I have been talking about everyday use of bacteria as initiative in the synbio field. I was astounded to learn that bacteria can be used for daily applications and in creating objects such as textiles, food and decorations. We have been talking about making an illustration representing in one piece several possible bacteria-based items. I think it’s a funny and light idea, also useful to escape the current heavy climate.
So we have been discussing how to highlight the bacteria-based items, not only with Juliana but also with Kate. Among the ideas that came up, there was a classic visual hyperlink structure and a point and click game structure. One thing that I begin to appreciate a lot about The Bridge is that there is no pressure to decide one thing and then go for it, as a lot of space is left to experimentation and to enjoy the creativity process. So once we exchanged mail with Juliana I began to play around with the idea of an animated illustration. As I was quite interested about the idea of books made with bacteria, I began drawing a woman reading a book, imagining it as just a part of a bigger animation. To animate her I used the very old technique of rotoscoping, meaning that I filmed myself browsing the pages of a book and then traced some lines representing the movement in a digital drawing. I came up with what is called “boiling lines”, which are basically little deviations from the actual line; they used to be a “mistake” done by people rotoscoping back in the days (the technique has been used since the beginning of the XX century). But since then boiling lines have become an artistic choice often used by animators, to give elements more life. And speaking of life, I thought that boiling lines could be a nice idea to highlight bacteria-based objects in a complex illustration. Their movement is exactly the one I imagine in a petri dish! So for the next week I think I’ll explore this idea. What is still to be discussed is, since we are headed for a science communication and outreach piece, how to communicate the “how” and “why” of bacteria-based manufacturing, and this is going to be the next step.
As a scientist, it is easy to think about pragmatism and how you can explain to your colleagues what you do in a presentation with a piece of data that is ultimately translated into a number. However. In the last decade, the first generations of professionals who are active in art, design, and biotechnology are emerging. I see that these people, in addition to considering the pragmatic or creating theories that are intrinsic to scientists, involve aesthetics in their work. These things have made scientific divulgation to develop the interest of the public and the dialogue; Researchers or artists who understand this concept are more creative and it is these types of people who are now democratizing science, creating global networks and inspiring others to do increasingly incredible projects in which the barrier of knowledge and the imagination is blurred.
Seeing the work of Fiammetta and her desire to divulgate through her art has been an incredible experience, I have seen the various areas it covers and how it explains for people like me that are not familiar with physics to understand phenomena that seem complex and distant to our understanding. I show her a bit of our work in SSLAB what and why we do with bacteria (Image 1, Image 2). We also talk about how synthetic biology was created from the natural step of manipulating DNA once the humans understand natural systems and how synthetic biologists work at the boundary between engineering and biology to reassemble parts of organisms to perform new functions, recreating unnatural chemical systems to reveal emerging properties of the original systems and give information to predict the behavior of the cells in which DNA was synthetically introduced. We are certainly very eager to start this journey by joining Synbio to art.
“If you can’t explain what you’re doing and why you’re doing it to any intelligent layman, that really means that you don’t understand it yourself”
I have been working in science communication since almost 10 years now, but before that, I wanted to be a researcher myself. Whilst I’ve always loved drawing and reading comics, I was not sure about the research field I should specialize in. Eventually I wrote my PhD thesis about bistable perception, that is to say the perceptual phenomenon that takes place in the brain when we see ambiguous images. Ambiguous images are a specific kind of optical illusion that you have surely witnessed, where the same image can be interpreted in two different ways, like the lady who is young and old at the same time, or the animal which is a rabbit and a duck simultaneously. Our brain cannot decide which interpretation is the “right one” - because there isn’t one - and goes back and forth interpreting the images in one way or another, changing the “interpretation” every few minutes.
Just after discussing my thesis, I decided not to pursue a career as a researcher but rather to dive deeper in my interest for drawing and comics, orienting it towards science communication, thus creating a science comics project, ERCcOMICS and founding a science illustration agency, RIVA Illustrations. But this is another story.
The first images that Juliana sent me where pictures of petri dishes representing artworks and patterns (I even discovered an annual competition of bacteria design!).
This images reminded me, in a way, of my thesis. They made me think of these biological paintings are like ambiguous images: you can interpret them simultaneously as artworks and as a demonstration of the scientific concepts behind Juliana’s work in synthetic biology; art interpretation, science interpretation - both of them are valid. What I would love to do now is to better look at the “science interpretation", to better understand the concepts and the implications of Juliana’s work, and to incorporate it in the “art interpretation” that I will try to give. The back and forth between these two is “The Bridge”!