Growing the Future

 

First Ever Biofabricate Conference a Great Success

 

By Celine Cammarata

 

Last week I had the good fortune of attending the first ever Biofabricate conference, a day-long event born of the combined genius of SynBioBeta and BioCouture. Hosted at the stylish (if somewhat creepily modern) Microsoft Research Center in Times Square, the summit brought together an illustrious group of synthetic biologists, bio-engineers, designers, architects, entrepreneurs, and more. While, as the name implied, the discussion focused on creation of materials and products through biological means, this topic turned out to be incredibly diverse – after all, what does it really mean for something to be “biofabricated”?

 

For some, biofabrication revolves around improving our communication and interaction with cells and organisms. Researchers such as Microsoft’s Andrew Phillips are developing new coding languages and platforms to program cells and other biologicals, while others continue to develop an ever-expanding suit of methods to edit genomes. Techniques to guide cell growth have led to incredible breakthroughs such as the ability to grow patient-specific replacement bones, not to mention design of made-to-order organisms at companies such as Ginkgo Bioworks.

 

For others, biofabrication is about using nature to inspire and create products and processes that, in turn, are kinder to nature – and to us. Mushrooms were a star in this realm, specifically their matrix-like mycelium that can be used to forge bricks, packaging and other materials that are entirely compostable (EcoVative is the leader in this burgeoning industry). Bacteria are also pulling their weight, helping make environmentally friendly plastics from waste and building materials without a kiln. Furthermore, bio-inspired products can open new avenues for devices that are compatible with our own bodies; Dr. Fiorenzo Omenetto’s technology to create almost anything out of silk – a fully bio-compatible and incredibly safe material – were particularly impressive.

 

Biofabrication is also explored through art and design. From growing bone and leather fineries to employing various strains of bacteria to dye textiles, work from designers who have stepped into the lab was truly multidisciplinary. Designers can also help us understand how biotechnology fits into our society, as with the playfully creative design fiction of NextNature or the exploratory architecture of Terreform1.

All these themes, more intertwined than they are disparate, share a sense of collaboration – not only among ourselves, but with nature, biology, the larger world in which humans exist. At a first glance, the work of programming cells, cultivating tissues, or using organisms to grow materials may seem to be about trying to control nature, or “play god” as the internet likes to put it. But throughout the work presented at Biofabricate it was apparent that this research and these technologies instead require acceptance of nature and the way that it works. When bacteria are dying your textiles, you have to be willing to accept their choice of patterns. When mushrooms are making your bricks, you may need to learn new architectural techniques. You can develop a programing language to talk to cells and organisms, but to do so you must learn their language. Nearly all the speakers expressed that part of the pleasure and benefit of working with biological materials and systems is that biology can often propose better solutions that we may ever think of on our own.

 

Altogether Biofabricate was a resounding success: though the conference was only publicly announced a few months in advance, registration was completely sold out and clichéd as it might sound, the gathering had a palpable energy, with every overheard snippet of conversation more interesting than the last. The barrier-breaking combination of design and biology is a winning recipe that promises many more successful gatherings to come.