Biohack & Design Workshop at Design Interactions, Royal College of Art

Agar prototype, inoculated with squid ink containing bacterium Vibrio fischeri (Photo: Kim-Leigh Pontin)

Rapid advances in technology of the 21st century, and our deepening understanding of biology has enabled scientists to exert an ever-increasing control over nature. And today, such power is widening its user base. Our appetite for openness of knowledge, together with increasing accessibility of tools of biotech – driven partly by the recent global economic downturn – has allowed the so-called biohackers to emerge. They tinker with living entities outside of conventional scientific laboratories, in both physical and philosophical senses.

DIY biology is for everyone, and designers are no exception. DNA, proteins, cells and tissues are the raw living materials that may find themselves in maker studios and workshops alongside traditional materials such as wood, plastic, metal and the like. With an ever-increasing accessibility of knowledge and tools to manipulate them, designers have an opportunity to explore nature in unprecedented ways.

Ira Ekaterina Back6
‘Blue bacteria’: Genetically modified outcome from January

Back in last academic year, such explorations were undertaken at the department of Design Interactions at the Royal College of Art. Its primary aim was to promote awareness of biotechnology, de-mystify processes involved, and enable designers to engage in molecular and genetic strategies. Using a commercially-available ‘genetic modification kit’, students were able to design from the bottom up*. Using the most basic unit of life – the DNA – they were able to genetically alter the behaviour of bacteria to produce blue pigment. Use of this kit was a first for a Design and Art institution in the UK.

Workshop poster (by Jae Yeop Kim)

The latest Biohack & Design workshop aimed to expand on this, to further develop contents not only in terms of scale but also explore a variety of possible contexts too. Running through different stages of central dogma of life: from DNA to proteins to cells (and beyond) the workshop focussed on material handling and contextualisation of the processes in design.

DAY I. DNA Circuit Design

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Hacked bacteria colonies that produce coloured pigments

First day of the workshop dived straight into designing from the bottom up*, and creating a circuit which would be inserted into a common, industry-standard E.coli K12 strain. Once inside the cell, the in-house biological machinery allows translation of the genetic code from the circuit and produces various proteins that emit colours such as (but not limited to) green and red fluorescence, purple and blue.

A typical DNA circuit (more commonly known as plasmid vectors)

Circuit assembly began with adhesion of first genetic component to tiny metal structures called micro-beads. This formed a backbone of our circuit whereupon further chunks of DNA could be added – or ‘ligated’ – onto the end of preceding DNA strand. Each ligation required an addition of a special enzyme called T4 DNA ligase (which has its origins from a bacteria-invading virus). Scale of such molecular process were too small to be observed by the naked eye, and required special tools such as micro-pipettes to allow effective transfer of tiny droplets of DNA-containing solutions from one reaction tube to the other.

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Once complete, circuits were then inserted into E. coli cells, using a technique known as ‘heat shock transformation’: This involved transfer of cells from ice-cold temperatures to a relatively warmer ‘bath’ (42C) at a measured timeframe. Cells were then returned to ice and fed nutrients to recover before being spread onto sterile agar plates containing antibiotics for overnight incubation and growth.

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Heat shock transformation of bacteria

Agar plates containing transformed cells were incubated overnight at 37C, which is an optimum temperature for E. coli growth. Following results were observed in some participants’ plates (after 12 hours of growth):

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Bacteria colonies presenting GFP (green fluorescent protein)
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Purple bacteria (mixture of red and blue proteins)
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Purple bacteria (mixture of red and blue proteins)
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Purple bacteria (mixture of red and blue proteins)
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Red fluorescent protein
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Red fluorescent protein
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Other colonies showing GFP

DAY II. Agar Prototyping

Molecular structure of agar

Somewhat humble yet essential ingredient in Asian cuisine and scientific research, agar provides nutrient-rich, structural framework on which microbes like bacteria and fungi can grow, function and move. It is accessible and easy to handle, making it an ideal tool for biohackers and designers to manipulate micro-organisms. Just as we rightly appreciate the power and the significance of micro-organisms in our everyday lives, it is equally important to recognise the role of agar as fundamental foundation on which many of the very micro-organisms depend on. Without it, many microbes cannot be grown and manipulated efficiently.

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Microbe colonies growing on thin film of agar

Starting off by melting agar powder and setting it inside the mould of an object of their choice, participants assumed the role of an ‘agartect’, a breed of biodesigners who use agar to reproduce or build an object of their choice. The aim of the activity was to introduce agar as a medium for design and also a process of hands-on speculation.

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Pouring agar into mould

We may speculate about our biological futures in the comfort of our studios and offices. But to help such speculation to stand in terms of plausibility, and indeed for biological fiction to become reality: growing architecture, breathing objects, bioprinters etc, designers may familiarize themselves with the language of biotechnology, including those associated with microbial manipulation. Using agar could be one of such first steps forward, learning how they are formulated for different scenarios, and exploring ways in which they could be shaped to meet functional needs of a particular design outcome or a scenario.

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Agar setting in mould

Once set, agar models were taken out of the mould and innoculated with various micro-organisms, including those residing in squid guts, surfaces of objects, and the human body. They were incubated overnight and visualised.

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Agar model inoculated with squid ink and bacteria
Glowing bacteria observed after overnight incubation (Photo: Kim-Leigh Pontin)

DAY III. DNA Extraction

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DNA extraction: Begins in the kitchen

One of the activities included a DIY extraction whereupon visible strings of DNA could be pulled out from various types of living cells. Using kitchen and household items, students successfully extracted DNA from common types of berries, as well as those of their own, such as the inner cheek cells: A somewhat practical way of learning about DNA, and a starting point to think about our everyday biological interactions between us and the environment: Where we live, what we eat, who we contact and what we use in terms of objects and products.

spitting group
Collecting cheek cells & saliva
Human cheek cell DNA rising from solution
Human cheek cell DNA rising from solution
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A typical DIY DNA extraction method uses strawberries, but participants of the workshop were encouraged to explore and speculate on its applications on variety of other sources of DNA, such as blueberries (attempt shown above) as well as unconventional materials (eg. objects with human interactions).

As strings of DNA is pulled out before our eyes, are we merely seeing genetic material derived solely from humans, or is it an amalgamation of additional sources – such as food, bacteria or otherwise – that we harbour through daily interactions?

Some scientists have also begun to use DNA in different contexts. To them they are no longer a biomolecule that only codes for life, but a physical entity that could be used as a space-saving form of digital data storage, as developed by scientists such as George Church*. Once extracted, DNA strings could also be dried into a cotton-like substance that could be physically manipulated. In certain areas of scientific research, these dried DNA – often derived from salmon sperm – are used as a stimulant to encourage bacterial transformation. In light of this, could designers also explore DNA as physical material that could be designed for different functions as well as contexts? What type of digital data could one store, and what type of structures and objects could designers create using such material?

(* Next-Generation Digital Information Storage in DNA. George M. Church, Yuan Gao and Sriram Kosuri. Science Express (2012) p1-2)

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DNA extract
+ Review article from RCA
Special thanks to Synbiota for Genomikon kit
* Notion of 'Bottom up' design was used to contrast 
against traditional design process and strategy, whereby 
tangible and non-biological components are used. In addition
it was not used in the context of creating life from scratch 
but to tamper with an existing system on a molecular level.