Why biology holds the key to the future of design and manufacturing
It is becoming increasingly apparent that transitioning towards a more restorative and regenerative economic model that decouples economic prosperity from the consumption of finite resources will necessitate the breaking down of the silos created across business, education and the broader economy, on which a linear, take-make-dispose system has thrived.
The emerging discipline of synthetic biology sits at the crux of the intersection between design, biology, computing and manufacturing. With recent breakthrough announcements like the launches of Patagonia’s spider silk jacket and Muufri’s milk grown in a lab without cows, it appears more and more probable that we are on the cusp of a paradigm shift, where biodesign is delivered at scale and biology is adopted as the next big manufacturing technology.
“Biology is the most advanced manufacturing technology on the planet. Self-assembling, self-replicating, and self-repairing, biology builds renewably – from the molecular machines inside of cells to global ecosystems”, a description taken from Ginkgo Bioworks’ website, an “organism design” company that makes the case for biology as crucial for the designers of the future, bringing an unmatched combination of “nanoscale precision” and “continent scale production”.
Ginkgo Bioworks’ objective is to take synthetic biology techniques to an industrial level, machine-injecting DNA sequences into baker’s yeast creating “living organism” products like perfumes, sweeteners, cosmetics and other things that are typically extracted from plants. Replicating that process by genetically engineering baker’s yeast saves space, shortens supply chains, is increasingly cost competitive and has obvious advantages for the environment. There are two main potential benefits from the technology. Replacing consumption of finite natural resources with lab-grown alternatives, and the potential to replicate actual genes to produce authentic fragrances, replacing chemical synthetic scented products that currently dominate the marketplace.
Predicted to occupy 80,000 square feet by 2018, Ginkgo has grown significantly since being founded in 2008, they currently work with 20 companies on around 40 products and have raised more than $150 million of investment.
Genetic modification and DNA sequencing has traditionally been shrouded by a lack of transparency and questions around health and safety, though there is also evidence that these public perceptions are not in-line with views from the scientific community, and it is worth noting that health concerns around food and various other consumer products are not exclusive to genetically modified products. Still, clearly overcoming the attached societal stigma remains a challenge for synthetic biology startups and researchers alike.
However, just as biomimicry – a design approach that draws inspiration from nature – can point to 3.8 billion years of R&D, synthetic biologists can draw upon the fact that manufacturing in biology takes place at far greater volumes than human industry in a way that has been benign for more than three billion years.
Combining biological manufacturing with the latest coding and automation of genetic sequencing processing opportunities, which make it possible for designers to iterate multiple complex possibilities in a short space of time, may well be the recipe for creating the products and services that the future economy needs and can thrive upon.