Team:UCL/HP/Gold Integrated

Integrated HP

Opting for plastic structures after working with BluePha

We were initially aiming to develop a system that can generate 3D structures out of cellulose using the cyanobacterium Synechococcus sp. PCC 7002, as this cyanobacterium has previously shown to produce a high-yield of extracellular type-I cellulose [Monteiro C et. al 2009]. After working together with BluePha, a company focused on using synthetic biology for the fine design of nano-level microbial manufacturing, we decided to instead focus on PHA, a natural bioplastic, as it has numerous applications in medicine and other industries.

After talking with Li Teng, the CEO of BluePha, we discovered the possibility of using E. coli to produce and secrete PHA, a biodegradable plastic with numerous industrial and medicinal applications. Thus we decided to focus on PHA-based structure generation using E. coli, as this is a more genetically malleable organism and the genetic circuits for PHA production have been previously characterised by several teams such as iGEM12_Tokyo_Tech.

PHA can be used to generate medical implants or surface materials that can be absorbed by the body such as surgical sutures, artificial blood vessels, bones, nails, cosmetic fillers etc. Therefore barchitecture could be used to 3D print these devices with a high degree of precision.

Artists shaped the prototype design for our light bulb

We called for artists on Instagram to help us design an aesthetically pleasing bacterial bulb, reaching 78,000 people and receiving 133 submissions. Their designs informed our prototype and we integrated their sketches in our OptoFlux mathematical model and our entrepreneurship designs. The best ones considered safety and the social implications of deploying a bacterial light bulb in real life.

the_art_competitionorganises weekly art competitions on different topics, reaching to 78,000 followers. Together we wanted to encourage artists to think about how complex the implementation of synthetic biology technologies can be in real life and how they may influence this process. So, we designed the Instagram competition to have artists ask themselves new questions and for us to learn what aesthetics could be incorporated into the bacterial light bulb.

We asked participants to consider in their submissions societal impacts, where the bulbs would function (private or public spaces?), the aesthetics and a future where bacteria are more integrated in our lives (awesome or dystopic?).

Entries were very well thought out, with designs clearly depicting co-culturing of E. coli and cyanobacteria as well as its potential usage in private and public spaces.

We selected a winner based on the thoughtfulness shown in the design and the number of likes. The design was taken as the starting point for our mathematical modelling, to see how we can combine aesthetic and engineering requirements into a prototype.

ESA advised us on developing news types of light switches

We considered Barchitecture to have a potential application in space exploration, and thus we contacted the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Institute of Aerospace Medicine (DLR). After working together with Dr. rer. nat. Ralf Möller, team leader of the Space Microbiology Research Group and Jan Jedryszek, a research intern at ESA, we not only developed the idea of using barchitecture to grow circuit boards and spaceship components out of biosilica but we also developed our post-translational light switch for cell adhesion.

Working together with Dr. rer. nat. Ralf Möller and Jan Jedryszek, we learnt that much research has been focusing on decreasing the mass of materials and electronics by engineering microbes that can print the necessary components. To this end, our biological light switches can be integrated into ‘growing’ electronics through light guidance.

For instance, Lunar regolith bio-mining of silicates and metal oxides is a current active area of research. Taking it a step further and engineering bacteria to not only harvest silicates and produce biosilica, but also form desired structures and bind this biomaterial could be used to generate silicon semiconductors and circuit boards.

Additionally, by discussing the idea of incorporating Xenobiology as a potential biosafety measure in space exploration we developed a light-induced cell adhesion system that relies on the incorporation of an unnatural amino acid. This system should act as a genetic firewall to natural life forms and should not allow the exchange of genetic information. This ultimate biosafety tool will facilitate the implementation of our system in any environment. Additionally, as this system relies on post-translational control, it should enable a much faster response to light induction and a much more efficient structure generation than our original transcriptional light induced cell adhesion system.

Large 3D scale structures as a result of our consultations with experienced architects

We contacted two practising architects with experience in combining biology and architecture to understand needs in the field and how our Barchitecture application could address them. After our conversations, we decided to not only focus on small scale structures but also large scale 3D structures.

Our first conversation was with Richard Beckett, a practicing architect from the Bartlett School of Architecture. After discussing our vision for architectural structures made from bacteria, we considered two directions for our Barchitecture technology:

  • Academic architecture, where a bacterial 3D printing system would be a tool to develop concepts and prototypes.
  • Real life applications, where structures made from biopolymers can form temporary shelters, structures for festivals and plastic frames to be combined with cement in traditional buildings.

These ideas lead us to get in touch with Rachel Armstrong – a former TED Fellow who explores the intersection of biology and architecture. Our Skype call was beneficial to learn about thinking on larger scales in terms of both time and space. So, we formulated a vision for our Barchitecture application that would incorporate living organisms in buildings that could create structures from bacteria depending on natural and artificial light cycles.

The next steps to take would be to experiment with our cells and different materials and see how light-guided adhesion could benefit other structures. We encourage future iGEM teams to get in touch with more architects and develop prototypes for the classic architecture critique sessions.


Implementing stakeholders' feedback into our modelling and entrepreneurship

We contacted a bioluminescence start-up, an artist and Transport for London about the challenges in bioluminescent bulbs and what criteria our bacterial light-bulb would need to meet to be deployed as street lamps on London’s roads. We then used the relevant information to tailor our mathematical modelling and entrepreneurship.

Our conversations with relevant stakeholders to bioluminescent bacteria gave us ideas to produce DIY kits to implement bioluminescence in daily life and insight into how to deploy the light bulb on the streets of London.

After Glowee decided that they’re too cool for school, we reached to Teresa van Dongen, a Dutch artist who designed and produced a bioluminescent light-bulb with bacteria - Ambio.

We learnt about her experience with bioluminescent bacteria and more importantly, about the human-centred aspects of such a product: aesthetics, use and safety. We talked about the engineering aspects that she experimented with and started a conversation about what potential biological light switches have for the future of design.

The Skype call led to an idea of creating DIY kits, giving people the possibility to build their own bacterial powered light-bulb, making this new concept more exciting and pushing more people to want to learn about the science behind bioluminescent organisms.

We also felt that our bacterial bulb could contribute to sustainable living and alternative energy. So, after the Instagram competition that inspired our mathematical modelling and prototype, we considered engaging with stakeholders that would use bacterial light bulbs for street illumination. We reached to the City of Westminster Council and Transport for London to learn about the needs and requirements for a bacterial light bulb to be implemented in real life.

With the later we talked about how to deploy bacterial light bulbs as street lamps. We integrated the outcomes of this discussion in the design and entrepreneurship related to the light bulb.

Transport for London is responsible for the illumination of 5% of the city’s roads. A rough estimation suggests that 1213mW () are consumed per day to illuminate these streets. The whole system is centralised through a computerised system that monitors consumption and lighting hours.

We learned that currently, with the opportunity for new technology, TfL considers the cost, longer-term energy savings, maintenance, ability to dim the lighting according to time of day and the ability to meet lighting level requirements. We were also interested in the challenges that they faced now: lowering energy consumption as a top priority; complaints about broken bulbs, lights shining into property and the brightness of lights.

All this information contributed to our entrepreneurship analysis, in the form of the needs and challenges to be addressed. At the end, we submitted to TfL a short proposal for review, outlining our bacterial light-bulb and the technology. The next step is to go through a few iterations in collaboration with TfL and to improve on the current prototype.

ARUP advised us on how to bring our idea into the design phase

At ARUP we presented our idea of Barchitecture helping overcome the depletion of raw materials, the increasing need to create sustainable buildings and the need for rapid structure building in the case of natural disasters. We produced a document to take the idea to a design phase with engineers from ARUP.

During the meeting, we discussed the science and the potential for our Barchitecture application. At the end, ARUP proposed that they could give 50 hours of pro-bono consulting to develop a more concrete design for Barchitecture.

We then produced a concise document that explains in detail the aims of the project and the nature of the collaboration. Given the nature of big companies, time was an issue in taking the project to a design phase where sketches would be built.

Here is the document, from which future iGEM teams can see a way of tailoring documents to model their interactions with industry stakeholders.

Why we did HP the way we did it

We saw the Human Practices activities as opportunities to explore the applications of biological light switches and develop a holistic perspective on them. In doing so, we tested activities and principles to see how well they work and combined them with the wet lab experiments, mathematical modelling and entrepreneurship.

We hope that our achievements this summer will inspire a more creative view of the role of Human Practices in synthetic biology and will serve as good documentation for future iGEM teams to build upon.

Throughout our activities, we wanted to test a few principles that future teams can use when exploring their projects. We focused on:

  • high outreach
  • interactivity
  • the extent to which we integrate an outcome into the project holistically

Also, we thought of our activities as ways of testing hypotheses about how to interact with people outside of synthetic biology. For example, Public engagement can happen on small, medium and large scales in terms of the public outreach. We wanted to test each level and see what useful outcomes can be expected from each.

On the small scale, we decided to focus on the idea of intimacy: how can a small-scale discussion facilitate a more thorough understanding of synthetic biology and building close connections with the people involved.