Ever thought of working with a designer?

Biodesign is a new and emerging field of design that applies research from biosciences. Biomimicry has, for a long time, been used by designers to apply what we learn from nature to design challenges in architecture, engineering, medicine and many other fields. Biodesign intends to go beyond mimicry to partnership with living organisms. 

There is a concept called “affordances” in design. The affordances of an object is anything you can do with it. A pen affords many actions and uses; you can make marks on a page to communicate or express your creativity, but also you could throw it across the room, or twirl it between your fingers. Designers consider the affordances of new products as they are developed, but biodesign applies affordances (or tropisms) of life that have been perfected through evolution, so they can be used to help address human needs. 

For example, when the Racomitrium canescens moss is dry, its leaves close. The moss then responds quickly to a spray of water: you can watch the leaves open over a few seconds. A spray of water can be digitally controlled using a cheap microntroller, and therefore it creates an opportunity for a living display. This display would be low-resolution and have a slow refresh rate (it takes seconds for the leaves to open, but minutes for them to close, depending on the environment). This presents opportunities for design, perhaps to present slowly changing information, or for displays that don’t create light pollution. This kind of tangible manifestation of data urges the designer to consider what information would be interesting to present in this context and how might it be represented in a way that the end-user may find useful. 

Biodesign approaches design problems using the affordances of living things. This could range from interactive systems created from genetic circuits created with bacteria, to physical and material applications of mycelia, bacteria or plants. 

Biodesign as a method requires an interdisciplinary approach that follows three stages. First, a user centred inquiry explores the needs and context of the user and forms a description of a space suitable for scientific research. The intractable problems of user needs are more suited to design methods, but the design process can be used to frame a question suited to the scientific method. This second stage, the scientific inquiry is used to understand how biosciences are applied, possibly by creating new materials, designing genetic circuits, or modifying and functionalising microorganisms. The scientific process defines the conditions needed for the living organism to thrive, which informs the final stage, designing the product, which not only allows for the organism to participate and survive, but addresses the needs of the user. This process is followed in examples collected in recent research, that demonstrates applications of synthetic biology, finds applications from new materials, or reframes existing problems as design challenges, though they may have medical or scientific solutions. 

The challenge is identifying the role of designers in collaboration with scientists in the future, and how design methods can frame a space for scientific investigation. But this challenge will pay off as biodesign is identifies new kinds of applications of biosciences, particularly through synthetic biology, to address the needs of everyday users and create living and tangible interactive systems. 


Dr Phillip Gough is a Lecturer in Biological Design at the Affective Interactions Lab, in The University of Sydney School of Architecture Design and Planning. He is an interaction design researcher in the Discipline of Design, and collaborates with scientists, clinicians and statisticians. Phil uses design to support human wellbeing, particularly related to the evolving nature of the home and work, using biodesign, data visualisation, digital fabrication and Human-Computer Interaction. He is the Program Director of the Biological Design Major, a program launched in 2020 that allows students to apply life science research to human problems through design thinking methodologies. 




News Article: A plant that tells you it needs water? Welcome to the future of SynBio!

Republished from: https://lighthouse.mq.edu.au

Original Paper Published in Nature Communications: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-20764-2

We are now at the point when synthetic biology techniques can allow information to flow from digital systems into living organisms, paving the way for technologies of vast potential, say Macquarie University researchers.

“Hey Google, do I need to wear a mask in here?”  Imagine if your personal digital assistant could identify traces of COVID-19 in a room’s air, in real time, and tell you if you needed to take precautions.

Dr Thomas Williams, Department of Molecular Sciences; Prof Sakkie Pretorius, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research); Thom Dixon, National Research Assessments Leader.

Future focus: Research authors Dr Thomas Williams, Professor Sakkie Pretorius and Thom Dixon … ensuring SynBio technologies are safe for the planet is key for Macquarie researchers. Photo credit: Michael Amendolia

Long a staple of science fiction, ‘bio-informational’ tools are poised to change the way we imagine, and interact with, the living world.

In a paper recently published in Nature Communications, Macquarie University’s Thom Dixon, Dr Thomas Williams and Professor Isak (Sakkie) Pretorius take an in-depth look at what enhancements may be coming to a biological system – say, a plant or animal – near you, and sooner than you might have thought.

And in thinking ahead, says Professor Pretorius, “We are also thinking about what will be needed to make sure these technologies are safe for the planet and what the legal and regulatory frameworks need to safeguard society from what the unintended consequences might be.”

It is our responsibility as researchers to imagine what might happen. That way we can guard against the possibility of causing harm through trying to do good.

At the Macquarie-based ARC Centre of Excellence in Synthetic Biology scientists are coming up with solutions to global agricultural, food production, manufacturing, healthcare and environmental challenges.

One of the underpinnings of Macquarie’s research framework is consilience – a term taken from biologist E.O. Wilson’s quest for a unified theory of knowledge, spanning from physics and biology to the humanities and social sciences.

For this reason, like Macquarie’s work throughout the ARC Centre of Excellence in Synthetic Biology, this paper is multi-disciplinary, drawing on the arts and social sciences to examine not just the technical aspects of such revolutionary technology, but the broader implications and potential risk/benefit, to make sure that when these technologies are operational, they are also fit for social and environmental purpose.

Lead author Thom Dixon says: “It is our responsibility as researchers to imagine what might happen, both technologically and more broadly. That way we can guard against the possibility of causing harm through trying to do good.”

Sentinel plants and thought-controlled medicine delivery

The 21st century so far has been a period in which satellites, sensors and medical devices have made remarkable advances, and collected staggering amounts of data. The key word, though, is ‘collected’ – and collection is a one-way process. Information has flowed from the built, natural and living environment into digital systems, with nothing flowing back.

Two-way communication: Imagine a grapevine that could send electrical pulses to a satellite, alerting the vineyard manager to turn the sprinklers on.

But this is beginning to change.

We are now at the point when technology can allow information to flow the other way – from digital systems into living organisms and systems. With the practices and techniques of synthetic biology now being integrated into ‘multiscale’ designs that allow two-way communication across organic and inorganic information systems, biological devices are being reimagined as advanced cyber-physical systems.

Imagine, for example, that a vineyard contains one grape vine – just one – that has an engineered biosensor in its DNA. If that plant was getting low on water, it could send electrical pulses to a satellite, alerting the vineyard manager that it was time to turn the sprinklers on. This solves the problems of both under- and over-watering, optimises water use, and could also optimise yield.

What if we could use engineered gut microbiota, controlled by thought, to release medication on time and in the correct amounts.

The same plant could also potentially monitor air quality. If our hypothetical grape vine was in, for example, the NSW Hunter Valley, where vineyards and coal mines share the land, a sentinel plant could alert both vineyard and mine management if pollutants were escaping.

Or to take another example – what if we could use engineered gut microbiota, controlled by thought (monitored by an EEG) to release medication on time and in the correct amounts? People who are paralysed would no longer need to depend on others being there at the right time when they needed medication.

Over time, this could even be integrated with wearables and smartphones, to enable more sensitive calibration of medication delivery in a far broader range of patients.

Bringing everyone on board for the future

These are technologies for which the potential is truly vast, but they might encounter resistance.

As the article points out, “It remains unclear how those sectors of the public who have traditionally taken an opposition stance to engineering biology will respond to treatments and vaccines that are a product of that discipline and practice.”

The consilience approach is needed to ensure that public concern is anticipated and addressed, Pretorious says.

He stresses that these technologies are not yet practicable. But, he argues: “We need to look 10 to 20 years ahead, so that we’re ready.

“By getting the legal and governance aspects right at the same time as we’re perfecting the science, we make sure we use the technology without risk of harm, because we’ve already thought that through.”

Professor Sakkie Pretorius is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) at Macquarie University.

Thom Dixon is a PhD candidate in the Department of Modern History, Politics and International Relations.

Dr Thomas Williams is a Research Fellow at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Synthetic Biology.

iGEM 2018: Say G’day to the 2018 UNSW Sydney team!


The 2018 UNSW Sydney iGEM team is proposing to synthesise a molecular scaffold for joining together disparate proteins in order to speed up the multi-step enzymatic reactions involved in the Indole acetic acid pathway. This pathway is important as Indole acetic acid is the most common and most studied plant hormone of the auxin class (promotes cell elongation).


iGEM NSW_team
The UNSW Sydney 2018 iGEM team.

Continue reading → iGEM 2018: Say G’day to the 2018 UNSW Sydney team!

Synbio profile interview – Monica Espinosa

Monica_1Monica Espinosa Gomez is a PhD Candidate in the Paulsen SynBio Group at Macquarie University. Earlier this year she was awarded a CSIRO Synthetic Biology Future Science Platform PhD Scholarship. While undertaking her Bachelors of Biotechnology (Hons), Molecular Biotechnology, at UQ she worked in numerous labs as a research assistant. In 2016, she worked under synthetic biologist, Dr Claudia Vickers, at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology before embarking on her PhD journey in 2017. Twitter handle: @monicaespgom Continue reading → Synbio profile interview – Monica Espinosa

Ian Paulsen: Jobs for rural Australia in synthetic biology revolution

Economic opportunities: Paulsen says Australia should ideally be part of a $1.1 trillion industry. Image credit: The Lighthouse @ Macquarie University

Synthetic biology underpins an international market worth $355 billion a year, climbing to $1.1 trillion in five years. The market is in pharmaceuticals, engine fuels, plastics and more, all made using genetically engineered microbes. Macquarie University’s Distinguished Professor Ian Paulsen wants Australia to have a slice of this high-tech, job-creating, transformational industry.

Read the full story at The Lighthouse, Macquarie University