Few things have managed to capture the imagination of hackers and engineers around the world the way Synthetic Biology did over the last couple of years. The promise of “applying engineering principles to designing new biological devices and systems” just seemed way too sci-fi to missed out on, and everyone jumped on the bandwagon. All of a sudden, the field which used to be restricted to traditional research organizations and startups found itself crowded with all sorts of enthusiasts, biohackers, and weirdos alike. Competitions such as the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) paved the way, and the emergence of community spaces like GenSpace and BioCurious finally made DNA experimentation accessible to anyone who dares to try. As it often happens, the Sci-Fi itself did not go untouched, and a whole new genre called “Biopunk” emerged, further fueling people’s imagination and extrapolating worlds to come.
That’s where the MIT Media Lab’s Mediated Matter group comes in – somewhere in between the real world of DNA experimentation in research labs and “design fiction,” exploring concepts and ideas at the very edge of what’s possible. Led by [Prof. Neri Oxman], this amazing group deals with research “at the intersection of computational design, digital fabrication, materials science and synthetic biology”. In the true Media Lab spirit, the group goes beyond pure research and engages in designing and fabricating incredible structures at both micro and architectural scale, demonstrating potential uses of new materials and design concepts. Probably the most famous piece showcasing the sheer awesomeness happening in the Mediated Matter group is the Silk Pavilion — a large-scale structure created with the combination of “digital” and “biological” fabrication. For this piece, primary structure was created with CNC-deposited silk fiber, whereas the rest was completed by deploying 6,500 live silkworms.
At this year’s SXSW Interactive, we had an opportunity to talk with [Sunanda Sharma], a graduate student in the Mediated Matter group. One of the projects [Sunanda] is working on is digital fabrication using the hydrogel called chitosan, made by deacetylating crushed shrimp shells. The team that [Sunanda] is a part of has developed a custom 3D Printing technique based on extruding chitosan at different concentrations and viscosities, allowing them to fabricate large architectural structures solely based on this amazing new bioplastic. While the kind of “living” pavilions that the group fabricates primarily reside in the domain of “what could happen in the future,” they also serve a great purpose of initiating the conversation about the many potential real-world applications of biomaterials like this. Not the least of which is replacing plastic with something completely biodegradable.
For more info, check out the interview that Hackaday’s “mythical creature” [Sophi Kravitz] did with [Sunanda] at this year’s SXSW: