Factories of the future will use the building blocks of life to change the way we eat, work, and live. And they're already here.
The world’s first summit dedicated to biofabrication took place earlier this month in New York. Suzanne Lee, founder of Biocouture, assembled a lineup of designers, entrepreneurs, and scientists to share their experiences working with bacteria, yeast, algae, fungi and other living cells.
Participants got a glimpse into a world in which products aren’t made, but rather are programmed to self-assemble, grow, and self-destruct by design.
Products showcased included bacteria that adds color to materials without dyes, bricks and insulation grown without fuel inputs, steaks and leather grown without cows, bone and structural materials regenerated without mechanical prosthetics, plastics grown from waste sources, self-assembling furniture, and DNA editing tools.
Speakers also provided insight into how technology is accelerating synthetic biology. Bioinformatics, biological computation, design, and good old-fashioned computation driven by software from Microsoft and Autodesk (both sponsors of the event) are super-charging synthetic biology advancements.
Computer memory, processing, and networking technologies enable us to create, store, and retrieve information, and to control other activities. DNA does the same thing for all living matter. Computing advancements have led to breakthrough technologies at the “human scale" - that is, a scale in which humans can see raw materials, assemble and manipulate blocks of materials, and deliver physical products for an intended benefit. With our newfound capability to create, write, read, and apply DNA, we're creating a revolution on a much bigger scale.
Advanced computing and biology are merging to create a world in which living systems literally manufacture materials and products, a world in which single cell organisms and living matter invisible to the naked eye provide fuels and material for manufacturing inputs, act as manufacturing machinery, work as computers that manage processes, and generate high-value products.
In spite of its explosive growth, synthetic biology is still nascent. The community is just beginning to define language, standards, processes, and scalability and to establish bioethics for their collective activities. The day was an introduction to the products that are being replaced and the future that is possible.
One presenter, Ginger Krieg Dosier, founder of bioMASON, was inspired by the efficiency and strength of naturally occurring structural cements like coral and seashells to start her company. Roughly one trillion bricks are manufactured each year, generating 800 million tons of carbon emissions due to the fossil fuels required in the firing process. In contrast, bioMASON uses sand and a bacteria solution to bond the grains of sand together, yielding a fully formed cement block after 5 days. This means that bioMASON can grow bricks on-site, in ambient temperatures using locally available materials, and without using fuel for firing the material.
What sounds like futuristic science fiction, is not. Many companies with real products, often backed by big brands, are already manufacturing potentially world-changing products. As we enter a world of 8 billion people competing for a constrained resource base, biofabrication offers great promise for producing wealth without the vast resource requirements of traditional manufacturing.
The full lineup of speakers can be found here (www.biofabricate.co).