Biology as a raw material for engineering?

Can we launch a discussion about the new developments in biotechnology that have opened paths to the understanding of biology down to the level of its genetics? We’re now able to re-engineer the characteristics of organisms in order to realise some desired properties for our use.

If biology can become a machine, a factory and a raw material for engineering, what are the aspects that could affect the materials, manufacturing systems and aesthetics? What are the concrete design features, the parameters, we need to deal with (ex. complexity, entropy), and how?

I’m really curious to exchange philosophical thoughts about this with you.


Regarding the relation between manufacturing systems (value chain?) and aesthetics:

Producing traditional materials or semi-finished product mostly rely on the acquisition of precious raw materials such as oil or minerals. The scarcity of these and the complexity of the processes to convert it into useable material, hands the power to just a few suppliers in the value chain. You’re always limited to their offering at a given time, since very small, personalized batches are costly to put into a production line. Essentially all very centralized.

In contrast: once (bio)engineered and given the right nutrition to keep the organisms alive, you could have a “living library” that is immediately deployable.
Also, a producer/designer/… who uses these materials becomes more independent of price, since using biofabrication is possibly infinitely scaleable: no precious raw materials are required and production could be decentralized from supplier because the complexity of producing materials will be performed by the organisms metabolism itself(assumption).

So no need to drive up the prices in the value chain due to earning back heavy investments in equipment (reactors,…) or limited availibility (geographic, volume,…)

On the condition biomaterials/biofabrication become on par with traditional materials on engineering point of view (structural, chemical stability, environmental durability, etc) I think this will actually shake up some economic models within manufacturing and thus the choices you will make as an engineer or designer, due to reduced cost and increased availibility.

Which means we’ll actually find ways to embrace the new aesthetics of these materials. This is similar to the transition from wood, metal, stoneware to plastics in the beginning of the 1900s, where that new line of (cheaper) materials “economically pushed” towards designers/manufacturers led to new aesthetics in the following decades.


If we don’t start using local resources as a feedstock, I can also imagine a homogenisation of the “basic resources for growing anything”. Eg. glucose, nitrate or cellulose will become the default food for bacteria or other organisms to grow on and produce stuff with. Meaning we can also run the risk of being completely dependent on cheap sources of glucose (sugar beet) and chemically produced nitrates. On top of our current massive consumption of those resources, of course!

We’ll always find a way to screw it up with any technology… :smiley:

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True! But mostly for “open loop” manufacturing an consumption, I think.
If biomaterials stay biodegradable, they can serve as feedstock directly or indirectly (eg. used in permaculture to grow new raw material).

But that could mean there are a few parameters to take into account: the time it takes to transform old material into new, and the material losses in those systems.

But we’re still a long way from that I suppose (futurist sigh):sweat_smile:

Interesting topic @Elise!

Even though I am far from an expert I somehow enjoy reflecting on the biotech industry. I have a feeling it looks more promising every day to feed my interest in design/innovation/change and ethics for a very long time to come :slight_smile: Especially since I have read that according to investors and the like the biotech industry is our ‘economic hope’ for the coming years ( …

Recently I have started reading on the idea that we design things and that in return they design us, e.g. the single portions of fruit juice with their plastic straw and throw-away package (and the same goes for other similar packaged drinks) allows for the knowledge worker to get a daily dose of fruits, stay at the desk while drinking/eating, the straw doesn’t suggest sharing, making it easy to also drink on the go, … etc. even though they were designed for a certain ‘customer need’ there are more consequences than the ones anticipated a priori - people also discover other advantages, way to use something, … . So I am very curious to see where these ideas, this hermeneutic circle, on bio materials, biotech, … will lead us. (It’s like the discussions on general AI, transhumanism, …)

On @winnieponcelet about screwing up with tech: Krantzberg’s Law (just heard about it recently) apparently says technology is neither good nor bad, but never neutral in its use. :wink:

I also had to think of an artist I have met a few times long long long time ago, who is now in Holland (TU Delft) working on this idea of a spaceship that grows on an asteroid (Angelo Vermeulen, ). Also interesting how he tries to get the dialogue going with the general public.

There are things that need to be addressed and adapted to.

As nice as the giant network of decentralized small scale production facilities sounds and makes my socialist heart happy. it fails to take into account that bio engineering and bio reactors are unconsistent and finicky by design. specially as our understanding of molecular biology is still very limited.

Lack or excess of micronutrients can and will change your final product. Natural evolution and plasmid exchange also means that some engineered strains can and will mutate often in a market negative way. (it wont die but it wont also do what you want)

How are we to address this? market economies are always aiming for consistency, this is an impossible challenge from production side and a very long term change from the consumer side. How to globalize consumption with homogenizing as @winnieponcelet, mentions. And more importantly how to keep it humane and enviromentally safe? situations like what happens now, with palm oil and corn for biofuels should be avoided when and if we move to a biobased economy.

My personal worry in Biomaterials is biodegradability is a mere excuse for high consumerism behaviour.
Landfills are full of biodegradable stuff, but we trusted that small scale biodegradation is just as efficient as large scale and it is not, producing more biodegradable garbage will not fix this, and developing extra efficiency in our bioproduction is going to take us back to a Khazzoom–Brookes situation (the more efficient we are at making, the more we consume and polute). Closing the loop is far more important than removing our bottlenecks.

That being said, the plastic revolution for consumer objects from the 70s onward is an unmitigated disaster, as the long life of the material is completely opposed to its purpose and limiting production on those lines needs to be done much faster.

But, there is a valuable aesthetic insight from this, people enjoy slick smooth surfaces as they are perceived as clean, this is a niche that I dont see biomaterials filling anytime soon.
how would we address this? we need to fight the notion that bacteria free is a desirable state. The bioeconomy as it is modeled right now, requires that the consumers have already changed, rather than changing them as they grow.


Theoretically, those people should disappear again at some point since they will develop weaker immune systems and thus become sick/die more often. Though, they could also become a weak link for all of us, open the door for more pandemic diseases and wipe out humanity… Maybe when biofabrication breaks through and starts producing genetically modified antibiotic toilet seats. We’ll be in a pickle… Dire times… Ah well.

My hope is that the slick smooth thing is just a taste and is going to pass.

Global pandemic not withstanding,and my particular bloodline is on the first ones to go when the inmune apocalypse hits, indeed the biofabrication boom does not really help as much as we might like.

soemof the papers in bioplastics and biorefinery are already quite antibiotic heavy on their medium to protect the strains, so it is biofabrication going to be a new source of resistant diseases?

And slick and smooth is going to be necessary for certain applications.

As I can distil from the discussions, the urgent challenges are:

  • the resource limitations, since all organisms need nutrients to multiply. Local resources, local production and close loops of feedstocks can provide solutions, in which time and cost to transform used feedstocks need to be taken into account.
  • the homogenisation of the nutrients (glucose, etc) if we standardise the processes on a global scale. Sugar will become a precious resource, and we want to avoid situations like palm oil plantages.
  • the consumerism behaviour about producing more biodegradable stuff:[quote=“Gammarra, post:6, topic:8790”]
    the more efficient we are at making, the more we consume and polute

All those aspects also question the production scale: how do we scale the manufacturing process that happens at the micro-scale in the organism to large scale production without harming the environment? Or maybe how do we decrease the actual large-scale production to micro-scale production?

Readily available biotechnology will disrupt existing economic models, as abundance reduces costs. Even an automated manufacturing technology will not create an unlimited abundance, since raw materials and energy will always be needed. There is a quite well documented wikipedia page on post-scarcity economy.

And this seems to me a good summary:

Natural law resource based economy
The five attributes proposed by Peter Joseph in his book The New Human Rights Movement: Reinventing the Economy to End Oppression (2017) form the foundation of the natural law resource based economy (NLRBE) concept for a post-scarcity worldview:

Automation: Transition from labor-for-income emphasis to machine automation emphasis. Goals: Maximize productive capacity; reduce human exposure; increase efficiency.
Open-access: Transition from property/ownership emphasis to strategic access emphasis. Goals: Maximize good use-time efficiency; reduce production pressure; increase overall good availability for use.
Open-source: Transition from proprietary research, data hoarding, and internal development to collaborative commons contributions. Goal: Maximize innovation.
Localization: Transition from globalization to localization, emphasizing networked design. Goals: Maximize productive/distribution efficiency; reduce waste.
Networked digital feedback: Transition from fragmented economic data relay to fully integrated, sensor-based digital systems. Goals: Maximize feedback and information efficacy/utilization; increase total economic efficiency.

The biotechnological innovations have environmental and social consequences that are driven by the current context in which it is developed. If the current mechanisms of our system are actually at stake I don’t see how to induce a systemic change? Future directions are coloured by the contours of the actual system.

Genetic modification

How do we want genetic modified biomaterials to be regulated? Indeed the engineered strain will for sure mutate if it comes into nature. Nobody will be able to control this. We can impose strict protocols of production, with clear tests of the materials made inert before it leaves the production factory.

Design features

What is the role of the designer, specially in a context of cross disciplinary collaborations? Design and biology are now perceived as two different fields, but the distinction in not relevant anymore. Bio-engineers are becoming designers and designers are becoming bio-engineers.

All living matter might evolved to engineered matter, predictable and functional. Humans have difficulties dealing with complexity and diversity. We have already edited out so many crops and animals in agriculture, and this evolution will continue in all fields. Designers will program DNA code like they now program software. We should question our relationship with nature cause soon it might not exits anymore.

Or maybe it will be the other way: all engineered matter will be living matter. The qualities of nature, like self-healing, self-organisation, adaptation, entropy, decay will overrule our controlled processes. In this case, what are the design methods that should be adapted?


This particular 2 are very interesting for how deeply opposed they can be to each other. By refining and homogenizing the procedure to the basic building blocks, we make it more and more reliant on purified and highly processed feedstocks which in turn makes it harder to close the loop. Intellectually, it should be a focal point on most research but the ROI is so low at this point that very little is being done right now.