Friday, September 9, 2011

Rachel Armstrong, Architecture & Synthetic Biology 3

We continue with the transcribed lecture delivered in June of 2011 By Rachel Armstrong in the Hay on Wye Philosophy & Music Festival on Synthetic Biology & Architecture - Making 'Life' in the Laboratory.

We will be following our normal protocol of posting Dr. Armstrong's words in italics and any annotations we use in regular font with color.

I am using active chemistries that actually respond to the environment in real time in a way that is living.  I will show these to you rather than keep telling you how life-like they are.  So they do actually exhibit the characteristics of living systems.  This is an oil droplet, in slightly alkaline water.  
Life was formerly regarded as a phenomenon entirely separated from the other phenomena of Nature, and even up to the present time Science has proved wholly unable to give a definition of Life; evolution, nutrition, sensibility, growth, organization, none of these, not even the faculty of reproduction, is the exclusive appanage of life. Stephane Leduc

For me, this was my epiphany, I saw it as being a literal and a figurative form of birth.  This is a  different kind of technology to machines.  This is inherently complex.  You cannot reduce this down into its components.  There is an oil droplet.  There is alkaline.  There is water.  Three ingredients, but they're not components.  You cannot reduce those down into their parts.  And yet, this is undergoing incredible complex phenomenology.  This is able to move around its environment.  It can sense it.  It can move around to an alkali stimulus and is able to shed a skin.  If that isn't a kind of amniotic picture there... Anyway, that's my human projection into this literal birthing of this droplet-based technology which I see as being an inherent complex type of technology.  It is completely different from the way that we experience machines.  
...I think one of the most incredible characteristics about this particular system is that it starts to challenge some of the things that we have presupposed about biology in a conventional biological context, given that since the middle of the last century, we have put the DNA right at the heart of identity, of intention, of everything that is important about being alive.

Of course, once you have a model from which you can start to examine how technology could engage differently with the world, then you can start to imagine and speculate upon it.  This is a slightly different arrangement, you can create lots of species of this oil and water droplets.  What you're seeing here is a alkaline field with an actual water droplet.  The reason for doing this is that these move more slowly through the resistant oil so that you actually get these skin-like structures that are repeatedly shed.  You can see here that the chemical energy that the droplet is using exists at the oil-water interface.  There's no membrane here.  It's not two-sided.  This isn't an interior.  It's literally, an interface that is wrapped up into a sphere, as the pressure of the water molecule tries to expand into the oil droplet.

We include a short video which demonstrates this movement of forming protocell turbulence which appears life-like.  If you cannot see the embedded video, here is the link:

You can see that they do things that you would associate with life-like processes.  So there was fusion that just happened there.  You can see the building of quite complex structures.  In this case, there's a suggestion of a helical structure here on the right.  What I think one of the most incredible characteristics about this particular system is that it starts to challenge some of the things that we have presupposed about biology in a conventional biological context, given that since the middle of the last century, we have put the DNA right at the heart of identity, of intention, of everything that is important about being alive.

Another video showing the amazing interactions between two of these oil droplets.  If you cannot see the embedded video, here is the link:

Here you can see that this DNAeless entity is going from a free-swimming droplet to a now growing a short stubby tale. This purely the result of a metabolism.  The alkali and the droplet is reacting to the environment to create a set of crystals, a salt-like state of crystals, that then create drag, a set of physical forces on this droplet.  Not only do you see a change in shape, but you see a change in the form of locomotion simultaneously.  You're not waiting for point mutation to happen here.  You're not waiting for it to have a genetic mutation and then suddenly evolves eyes.  You can now see that this entity is crawling along the bottom of the petri dish where only seconds ago, it was free swimming.  Thus, you can see almost peristaltic-like ways of activity that this agent has then it has a different kind of physicality, in this particular environment.  It is exquisitely sensitive to its environment.  It goes through very rapidly-turning trajectories in order to optimize its chemical energetic state.  Very intriguingly, anthropomorphically and anthropocentrically appear to be very social.  This is my favorite movie of all time.  I get very excited about this.

We include a fuller explanation of Dr. Armstrong's work with the green algae Bryopsis.  If you cannot see the embedded video, here is the link:

We have a colony oil and water droplets existing in the center field here.  That's the home team.  They're sympathetically building very similar micro structures.  They're about .1 millimeter big.  The away team is just happening there on the edge of the screen.  You see two members of the away team coming to check out the home team.  Now watch what happens next.  Remember, there is no DNA or programming in this system.  There is a complete transition that takes place here.  Not only do they change their shape, not only do they change their movement, but they also act synchronistically.  There is something happening at the population scale that has not been monitored in computers before.  So something is happening at the material level, in a complex system, which we would probably describe as a form of emergence and that gives rise to these life-like properties that are not alive, because technically our definitions of life necessitate a form of information molecule, a DNA or an RNA or some kind of a nucleic acid-based code that is creating the intention for life-like organization of these systems.

What you can see in this section of the footage, is a chemical death.  What happens is that when you occlude the interface, when you occlude the possibility of energetic exchange between the systems and you get an incasing of the crystals along the interface, this stops the energetic exchange, they literally become inert materials.  I included this because there is a lot of homology between its chemical structures and biological systems, like all these microbial roses.

Moritz Traube
I'm not the first person to make these kinds of analogies.  The first person to describe these fields of synthetic biology is Stephane Leduc.  He coined the term in 1911, when he was actually making a comparative anatomy analysis between chemical and biological systems, a practice that had gone on from the century before, when people like Moritz Traube were trying to disprove notions of vitalism.  (Martin Hanczyc coined the term protocell and is doing current research in discovering how these "organisms" function.)   I'll say maybe a little more about that later.  Now I think that I've got an agent that I think I can call a technology, that behaves in a life-like way, that is environmentally sensitive, unlike machines, which also embody the kind of the Western egocentric notion of being.  I thought of a context in which this kind of technology might be meaningful.  It needed to be a system in which mechanical systems had come up with a perfectly good answer and it needed to provide an alternative way of seeing and engaging, that could suggest that there are other ways of technological engagement between humans and the world.

Just in case there are some who are not aware of the plight of Venice, we post this video.  If you cannot see the embedded video, here is the link: 

Venice during the aqua alta
So the idea was could we do something like Venice.  Vernice has an incredibly complex, precarious relationship, again with its extreme environment, the seashore, suffering with incredibly damage, desiccation, flooding through the aqua alta, chemical digestion and through the deposition of minerals unto the brickwork.  You walk along the canal sides in Venice you see the acts of architectural decay.  You've got lion like scratches in the marble, very characteristics of the salt erosion.  You've got crumbling of the silica within the brick.  There are acts of architectural desperation as people kind of fix these great big holes that are big enough to put your fist in with concrete, with rubbish, rubble and chewing gum.  
Venice protocell rescue visualized

Venice's "underground"
protected by protocells
So the idea then was could we actually start to create a relationship between this technology and something architectural, the architecture created being an interface between the artificial and our synthetic technology could provide a framework for our interaction.  So what I did was I got handful of the brick dust from the walls in Venice.  I put it into a petri dish and I introduced oil droplets that had a metabolism, that could literally take carbon dioxide from the water and fix it into a limestone-like substance called calcium carbonate.  As you can see in this particular example, I've chosen a heavy oil which moves down between the brick fragments and starts to create a scar-like tissue between the brick fragments.  Now this is a long way from being an industrial paint that you can buy off the shelf.  The idea is that if we can actually create oil droplets that exist between the oil and air interface, that they will move with the tide and as they interact with the brick fragments, they will create this protective layer; this calcium carbonate layer over the brickwork, which will reduce the full impact, which will the first line of attack for the desiccation, the flooding and the salt decay.  Maybe we could create a protective shell at the shore line at the points in Venice where the architecture is mot stressed.

Venice protocell rescue
Scaling this up which is always the problem when we going to from the science laboratory into an industrial practice or a technological practice.  We're thinking of what this could be for Venice as a whole not just particular buildings.  So the idea was could we actually grow an artificial reef by engineering these protocells (if you still not sure what this protocell architecture is click here) and to have a light aversive mechanism so that they are photosensitive.  We can do that in a laboratory.  They respond very quickly to light with the right chemical ingredients in.  So they would move away from the light filled canal and  the lagoon and find a way into the darkened foundations underneath the city where then they create an artificial shell-like structure.  Over time with the movements of the tides and currents. This is not an exact science, it's more like cooking, or like an agricultural practice, where the deposition needs to be farmed and engaged within a human context, not just left and walked away from and then expecting some kind of results in a number of decades.

The idea is that these technologies being from a practice of biology, as you do have systems of control but they're persuasive forms of control.  They're engaged ways of looking at manipulating matter, very human centered and responsive to environments.  So the biggest threats to these oil droplets would probably be a shoal of hungry sardines.  It would just eat up the droplets and probably find them very nutritious.

We will finish this transcription of this lecture in the final segment in this series.


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Painter Perth said...

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