“This technology is not alive,” says Laia Mogas-Soldevila. “It is living-like.”
The distinction is an important one for the assistant professor at the Stuart Weitzman School of Design, for reasons both scientific and artistic. Mogas-Soldevila brings biology to everyday life, creating materials for a future built halfway between nature and artifice.
The architectural technology she describes is unassuming at first look: a freeze-dried pellet, small enough to get lost in your pocket. But this tiny lump of matter, the result of more than a year’s collaboration between designers, engineers and biologists, is a biomaterial that contains a “living-like” system.
When touched by water, the pellet activates and expresses a glowing protein, its fluorescence demonstrating that life and art can harmonize into a third and very different thing, as ready to please as to protect. Woven into lattices made of flexible natural materials promoting air and moisture flow, the pellets form striking interior design elements that could one day keep us healthy.
“We envision them as sensors,” explains Mogas-Soldevila. “They may detect pathogens, such as bacteria or viruses, or alert people to toxins inside their home. The pellets are designed to interact with air. With development, they could monitor or even clean it.”
For now, they glow, a first stop on the team’s roadmap to the future. The fluorescence establishes that the lab’s biomaterial manufacturing process is compatible with the leading-edge cell-free engineering that gives the pellets their lifelike properties. The team’s design work came to be cell-free, a technique rarely explored outside of lab study or medical applications.
“Typically, we’d use living E. coli cells to make a protein,” says Gabrielle Ho, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Bioengineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science and co-leader of the project. “E. coli is a biological workhorse, accessible and very productive. We’d introduce DNA to the cell to encourage expression of specific proteins. But this traditional method was not an option for this project. You can’t have engineered E. coli hanging on your walls.”
Cell-free systems contain all the components a living cell requires to manufacture protein—energy, enzymes and amino acids—and not much else. These systems are therefore not alive. They do not replicate, and neither can they cause infection. They are “living-like,” designed to take in DNA and push out protein in ways that previously were only possible using living cells.
Mogas-Soldevila’s lab’s signature materials—biopolymers made from shrimp shells, wood pulp, sand and soil, silk cocoons, and algae gums—lend qualities over and above their sustainable advantages.
In this collaboration, the team sought a living-like platform that does sensing and tells people about interactive matter. They needed to explore, step by step, how to get there.
The constraints were many—machine constraints, biological constraints, financial constraints and space constraints.
“But as we kept these restrictions in play,” Mogas-Soldevila says, “we asked our most pressing creative questions. Can materials warn us of invisible threats? How will humans react to these bioactive sites? Will they be beautiful? Will they be weird? Most importantly, will they enable a new aesthetic relationship with the potential of bio-based and bioactive matter?”
Read more at Penn Engineering Today.