Friday, September 9, 2011

Rachel Armstrong, Architecture & Synthetic Biology 2

We continue with Dr. Armstrong's lecture on her unique view of the merging of urban architecture and synthetic biology.


As per the last post in this series, Dr. Armstrong's actual words will be in italic and any annotations we make in regular type and color.

I would like to find new ways of working with the living world than the current method, which is to dominate it.  Machines use huge amounts of energy, very resource intensive, and it literally subordinates matter. By the end of the 20th century we've got this idea that domestication is the ability for us to control matter down to the atomic scale and that we suppose we can do that, that somehow or other matter is not going to rebel, because we have this ability to dominate through the machine.


Also I would like to learn more about this radical creativity of this essence that I felt from very early childhood, that was actually present in the material world.  And I guess, this is why I would call my practice science.  Since I am very concerned with being able to experience first hand, rather than through deductive, or a kind of secondary observation, as to what it is that I am investigating.
I would like to find new ways of working with the living world than the current method, which is to dominate it. Machines use huge amounts of energy, very resource intensive, and it literally subordinates matter.


I have a very optimistic and idealogical perspective.  I don't want to control things.  I want to do good.  I want to bring about a global sense of change for the better.  So it's very ideological.    But there are tools which actually exist today through which I could and I am pursuing this particular form of scientific investigation.  In the last fifteen years, a practice of science has which is an extension of the biology you learned in high school.  When I was at school, biology was very perspective descriptive practice.  It was after the event.  Rabbits had long ears and fluffy tails and big feet because they needed to hear predators coming.  They needed to signal with their little tails that predators were coming to their colleagues. They had big feet because they could run very fast away from predators.  And so there was never a discussion on what if rabbits could, say for example, glow in the dark, which is the example that Eduardo Kac, an artist has made an investigation into as an artist.


We include two videos on Eduardo Kac and his glowing rabbits.  If you cannot see the embedded video, here is the link: http://bit.ly/pP85yK.




So within synthetic biology we are actually able to look forward not just what biology is, as an ideal, but also what could be.  This is where the idea of "rational engineering" of living systems, starts to engage, with no sense of design, and through a natural imperative that we could call a living system.  The idea is to alter the performance or the efficiency of existing organisms.  That's been the traditional way of looking at synthetic biology.  The way that synthetic biology is being examined is to create engineereable more sustainable solutions for a planet that really is suffering from the ravages of  large scale industrialization, essentially the raping of our ecology.


I am particularly interested in the urban environment, because architecture is essentially where we do all our damage.  Our buildings house all our technologies.  The carbon footprint of architecture is worse than that of transport.  It has a 40% carbon footprint.  So I'm going to explain a different type of synthetic biology, because my practice, does not fit within a very conventional perspective.


Synthetic biology, if you think about the modern modification of an organism, and you think about Darwin's description of how organisms change with time, or how species evolve, sees that there is a relationship between the organism itself and its environment.  So actually, if you change the environment, you are actually impacting on an organism and ultimately, you create a physical change in that organism.


John Craig Venter
One of the tools synthetic biology makes very little use of and could make much more use of are environmental influences on the phenotype, or final appearance of the life form that they're trying to manipulate.  If we look at the organism itself, you could start with a traditional top-down approach and so genetic and bacterial engineering are the classical ways of engaging with that.  So J. Craig Venter's idea that you hack into a genome literally because you understand the genetic code, and then crank out synthetic molecules that then can be transplanted into host organisms, highjack the cytoplasm and make this ghost do something that it wasn't doing before.  So that is the extreme example of a top-down approach, modifying an existing organism.  But I don't do that.  I have my own issues with the practice of genetic modification.


I take what is better described as a bottom-up approach, to the engineering of living systems.  The two systems that I have described here are called protocells and icells. Essentially what we're looking at is some really smart chemistry, self-assembling chemical systems that have some of the properties of life-like entities.  They are recognizable from a kind of personal Turing Test.  (When Dr. Armstrong uses the term Turing Test, she is stretching the term to deal with lower forms of life.  The Turing Test was only applied to determine if computers had reached artificial intelligence.  But she DOES say it is a "kind of personal" Turing test.)  Does it look life-like to me?  Sure it's moving around.  It seems to be growing.  It's changing its behavior.  For me, these systems appear living.  They escape the (traditional) definition of life because they do not possess any DNA when they do this.


We Include a short video on the real Turing Test for your perusal.  If you cannot see the embedded video, here is link: http://youtu.be/e8vZy8a9lSc.




Bryopsis shaped into
an Ouroboros
So I am just going to quickly give the examples of each of these practices, or environmental mechanisms through which we can modify biology.  If you think about Carp in a pond or in a lake, they grow much bigger in a lake than in a pond.  We think again about the organism.  They (conventional synthetic biologists) engineer from the top down.  This is really being harnessed in an industrial context, to produce pharmaceuticals, also to modify Green Algae to produce biofuels for the energy industry.  Of course, the pioneer of this field, the champion, the ubermensch is J. Craig Venter who's technological expertise has passed that of the American government.  
So J. Craig Venter's idea that you hack into a genome literally because you understand the genetic code, and then crank out synthetic molecules that then can be transplanted into host organisms, highjack the cytoplasm and make this ghost do something that it wasn't doing before....but I don't do that. I have my own issues with the practice of genetic modification.


I will talk about an experiment I did when I was in Romania, which was to create a top-down change in the system, not using genetic methods.  What I did is I got Green Algae, a hairy seaweed that blooms in early Summer.  It is called Bryopsis.  It is a single cell.  It is a giant cell.  You pick it up and it sticks all over your hand.  I call it a terminator organism, because you can literally take this algae, plunk it down, cut it up with a razor blade, take those bits of sushis to a petri dish with some seawater and within a month, that terminator organism has completely regenerated itself.  It has done this in a month, after complete mechanical destruction!  When it is regenerating itself, it has this vigorous metabolism, call it a dustbin metabolism.  It's literally grappling for life here.  So it assimilates just about anything in its environment. Remember the Bryopsis seaweed is on the shoreline.  That's like the harshest environment on Earth.  It's subjected to repeated battering, desiccation, flooding, and predators.  Everything is happening at the shore line.  It's a very very hostile environment.  The Bryopsis has managed to adapt to these extreme conditions, by having this extraordinary regenerative ability.  When these fragments these protoplasms placed in seawater take up the magnetic particles placed in the seawater, and you put a magnet under the regenerating cell fragments, you can then impose, or suggest, persuade, orchestrate these particles to take on alternative forms instead of the hairy sticky green mass.  Here I've created an attempt out of some refrigerator magnets, to create an Ouroboros, the alchemical snake that eats its own tail.
Magnets building Bryopsis groin chapes


In an architectural context, what kinds of benefits could such a design bring us?  What could we be doing differently?  One of my students, Andrew Paine, an architect, was imagining that we had electrical magnets by the seashore.  And the electrical magnets could attract the particles, the fragments of these Bryopsis, that could form groins (a rigid structure built out from a shore to protect the shore from erosion, to trap sand, or to direct a current for scouring a channel) along the seashore. So over the Summer when the algae blooms, you actually get the accumulation of biological groins that exist during the Summer.  They stop the erosion of the sand from the shore and keep the girth of the beaches.  Of course in the winter then algae are no longer blooming and they go to seed, it allows deposition from the seasonal tides to again bring the sand back on to the beach.  So now you have seasonal kinds of architectures, using the hybrid, environmental physical cues that could be orchestrated through human-made interventions.


But I don't work with that system either, full time.  Where I do most of my work is in this notion of the bottom-up engineering.  I will talk about this now in more detail.


We will continue with this lecture in our next installment of this series.

No comments: