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Synthetic Biology as Material Design Practice

Lookup NU author(s): Carolina Ramirez-Figueroa, Professor Martyn Dade-Robertson


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Vitruvius suggested in his texts On Architecture that ‘architecture is an imitation of nature' (Vitruvius, 2009) but what happens when architecture becomes nature and we begin, through the design of biological systems, to become architects of nature?Whereas the latter part of the twentieth century was transformed through information technologies, it is widely predicted that the 21st century world will be radically changed by the emergence of biotechnology. Biological systems exhibit a wide variety of forms and functions, make highly efficient use of energy and other resources and are capable of processes such as programmed self assembly and adaptability which are very difficult or, in some cases, impossible to achieve using more traditional human engineered systems. To this end, Synthetic biology (hereafter) SB has been the subject of debate in a number of disciplines, including design, and the possibility of designing material forms through the manipulation of molecular and microscopic scale structures offers a radically different way of thinking about the design process and its possible outcomes. Through SB, it is suggested, designers will have access to ‘bottom up’ processes of material self organization and emergence. As it is currently practiced, however, SB seeks to conceptualize the design of biological systems through a design framework developed from mechanical and electrical engineering. This paradigm involves understanding biological systems as composed of modular units assembled ‘top down’ through a hierarchy of abstraction. We will present artifacts and images from an initial set of experiments into the creation and shaping of material using approaches from both biology and computation. These objects and the processes that they represent suggest that designing with biological systems is unlikely to be entirely ‘bottom up’ or ‘top down’ but rather understood as a new type of material design practice material practice.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Ramirez-Figuera C, Dade-Robertson M, Zhang M

Publication type: Conference Proceedings (inc. Abstract)

Publication status: Published

Conference Name: Praxis and Poetics: Research Through Design Conference

Year of Conference: 2013

Publisher: Northumbria University