From biomimicry to biosynergy

The Glowing Plant project, genetically engineered plants endowed with firefly bioluminescence

Addressing CRISPR and other genomic design techniques in class has made me wonder about the future of bioscience integration. The whole idea of manipulating life code as software is wild… but even wilder is imagining programming cells, tissues, organs… enhancing certain desirable features/functions.  It’s not crazy, bioengineers are already talking about living cells as if they were gene-expression microcontrollers.

While designing living things from scratch is a science in its infancy, easier ways of playing with genes exist today…literally copy-pasting. A very famous example is the Glowing Plant, where bioluminescent genes from fireflies were transferred to plants, transforming the latter into light lamps. This project was developed by the Biocurious hackerspace (CA), one of the most controversial groups focused on synthetic biology. Such organizations are now propagating, collaborating with universities, business incubators, fablabs and makerspaces, picking many different names to describe their activity: “biofab”, “biohacking”, “DIYbio”…

This brings the concept of bio-utilization to the table. In this post, Michael demonstrates how lines can easily become blurred while defining biomimicry. Actually, the ultimate purpose of “integrated bioscience” goes far beyond biomimicry because integration in any new field of research takes different directions: bioscience can be integrated in other fields while benefiting from them simultaneously. For instance, integrating new technologies in bioscience has led to unbelievable achievements, such as 3D printing human organs! Similarly, problem-oriented approaches in biomimicry, as known as “top-down biomimetics”, show how the need for a new technology can promote research and knowledge about a natural model. However, abstracting a functional model from the complex human physiology to a biomimetic synthetic organ might take more time than just copy-pasting a natural design by the means of bio-fabrication, the future of bio-utilization.

Humans have been doing bio-utilization since the very first wool garment was designed until now, using living cells as sensors. Bio-assistance, where the product of an organism activity is the desired object, sounds like a more high-tech way to use nature. Bacteria enslavement is tempting, in particular. They fabricate the Biocouture tissues, under the supervision of Suzanne Lee, and fix cracks in Henk Jonkers’ regenerative concrete.

Designer Suzanne Lee harvesting tissue fabricated by bacteria

Looking for inspiration in nature might be clearly distinct from physically using it, but some problems call for combined approaches. Research on water filtering by cell membranes gives us an example of blending biomimicry and bio-utilization, as aquaporin proteins extracted from living organisms are integrated into synthetic membranes for filtration. A more head-scratching case would be the worm-brained robot from the OpenWorm project (watch below). The worm’s neural activity was mapped and just copy-pasted into circuits. This was effective enough to make a Raspberry Pi car instinctively react after hitting an obstacle. Bio-utilization is there, but can we consider such a case biomimetic? There was no algorithm development, idea abstraction, or even an in depth study undertaken to understand how the worm brain works.

So the message of this post is that biomimics should keep their eyes open, and constantly ponder the limits and expectations of biomimicry. Science creates so many new opportunities every day, and with the emergence of biomaterials/bioenergy, biomimicry might not be enough by itself. What could actually lead to a more sustainable world is full-spectrum “biosynergy,” that brings idea abstraction, bio-utilization and bio-assistance together.

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