Design the Future 2: Thinking Soils: Engineered bacteria as computational agents in the design and manufacture of new materials and structures

Lead Research Organisation: Newcastle University
Department Name: Architecture Planning and Landscape

Abstract

The proposal anticipates a new era of fabrication driven by Synthetic Biology and our ability to manipulate living organisms to make new materials and structures. We are also going beyond the usual application domains of Synthetic Biology by applying it to Civil Engineering, expanding design methods and opening up a new area of Engineering Design.

To achieve this we will develop a living material which can respond to physical forces in its environment through the synthesis of strengthening materials. This concept is partly biomimetic inspired by for example the way in which our bones strengthen, becoming more dense under repeated load. However, we are also proposing to buid this system using living bacteria cells which have no such functional requirement in nature.

Imagine a hydrogel (jelly) containing billions of engineered bacteria. A weight is placed on top of the jelly and, as it is loaded the bacteria in the material sense the mechanical changes in their environment and begin to induce mineral crystals to form. As they make this material the jelly stiffens and strengthens to resist the load. By the end of this project we will be able to demonstrate this principle creating an entirely novel living material. We are working with project partners from across industry and academia to develop this proof of concept and to investigate the broad applications of such a technology to, for example, create self constructing building foundations and make large scale structures where it is very difficult to build using traditional buildings and materials.

Planned Impact

This project will a significant impact across both academia and industry with the potential to develop a new field of
engineering design. Where digital technologies were transformative in the 20th century, the 21st century is likely to be
transformed through biotechnologies and fields such as synthetic biology. This project proposes bridging the gap between
the design of biological systems at the molecular scale and the design of material structures at the scale of the human built
environment. We showed in our pilot project that the project is likely to attract commercial and public interest and our impact strategy reflects this.

The project has assembled an emerging network of academic institutions and commercial and application organisations including:
- ARUP who are interested on the implications of biotechnologies for civil engineering design and processes.
- NASA, who have an interest in new technologies for constructing in extraterrestrial environments where traditional building methods are not possible.
- Powerbetter who are interested in our system for the development of soil improvement methods.

In addition to academic publications and a dissemination strategy which includes media coverage, therefore, the project proposes to:
- Generate Data to add to open access repositories including the MIT run Registry of Standard Biological Parts and the
Newcastle University run Registry of Standard Virtual parts. In addition the project will create a new web based resource to
bring the work together by:
-Disseminating the research through a high profile public exhibition and symposium to take place at the Design Museum in London.
-Developing visual material and for enhanced press release which will (following the success of the pilot) act as a catalyst to initiate public debate on the project.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Title Catalytic Cell & Bacteria Sculpting. Exhibited at Global Community Biosummit. MIT Media Lab, Boston, USA. (October 11-13, 2019). 
Description Materials and a novel bioreactor produced from the Thinking Soils project developed into exhibitable material an exhibition at this Summit, The Summit included industry professionals as well as DIY Bio Community, Students and Academics. 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2019 
Impact Invitation to enter teh Bio Design Challenge in 2020. Followup with a number of interested parties in the US. 
URL https://www.biosummit.org
 
Title Yggdrasil. Exhibited at the Biodesign: Here Now. London Design Festival 2019. OpenCell, London. (September 19-22, 2019) 
Description Exhibition of Materials and Novel Bioreactors produced as part of the London Design Festival in collaboration with Open Cell. The exhibition will have been seen by more than 1000 people across two days. 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2019 
Impact Invitation to collaborate on a joint project on biomineralization with UCL. 
URL https://www.londondesignfestival.com/event/biodesign-here-now-2
 
Description We have established a number of new Methods for:
1 Cementing Sand Using MICP (Microbial Calcium Carbonate Precipitation) Bacterial
2 Imaging and assessing the affects of bacterial growth and calcium carbonate precipitation in hydrogels.
3 Establishing key principles in the regulation of Urease in Bacteria.
4 Early data on the affects of low levels of elevated pressure on gene expression in B. Subtilis.
5 Development of New Types of Bio-reactor and testing vessels for analysing bacterial under load in soil like environments.
Exploitation Route To early to tell at the moment but we envisage a number of application in building construction as well as any areas interested in the development of responsive biomaterials. We have also had some interest from Design Creative professionals looking for new material systems and novel forms of fabrication.
Sectors Construction,Creative Economy,Environment,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology

URL http://www.synbio.construction
 
Description Design the Future 2: Thinking Soils: Engineered bacteria as computational agents in the design and manufacture of new materials and structures
Amount £598,309 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/R003629/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 11/2017 
End 10/2020
 
Description FLAIR Collaboration Grants
Amount £6,000 (GBP)
Funding ID FCG\R1\201040 
Organisation The Royal Society 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2020 
End 12/2020
 
Description Improving the strength of the World's first bio-brick grown from human urine by adaptation and isolation of microbial isolates 
Organisation University of Cape Town
Country South Africa 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution This is an initial pilot research enabled by the work are have conducted on the metabolic pathways of Urease production and the application for biocementing. We are providing scientific expertise with a view to developing a collaborative grant.
Collaborator Contribution The partners have established a novel method and brick production technique. The partners are leading on this initial pilot stage.
Impact This is an early collaboration (initiated Feb 2020) so no firm outcomes have emerged yet.
Start Year 2020
 
Description ArcInTex Network Presentation in Paris EnsAD 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Presentation as part of the EU Funded ARCInTex Network to a small (30-40) group of postgraduate students with a small number of academics and industry representatives from industry.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL http://arcintex.hb.se/conferences-workshops/
 
Description Material Research Exchange 2020 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Attended the congress with an information stall and posters presenting the outcomes of the Thinking Soils project alongside material samples. 3 Thinking Soils members attended with a view to developing industrial collaborations. The stall was approached by over 100 people during the event and we received over 50 contacts from organisation wanting to seek further collaboration including construction companies and private research companies involved in the development of new materials and IP.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL http://www.materialresearchexchange.co.uk
 
Description Public Presentation at the Design Museum in London 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact An invited presentation to a public Audience as part of the Design with the Living Symposium to an audience of members of the public, students, and other researchers. The Thinking soils project was presented as an exemplars of a new sort of design project. The speaker (Martyn Dade-Robertson) was approached by approx. a dozen students a with interest in pursuing similar research afterwards.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://designmuseum.org/whats-on/talks-courses-and-workshops/design-with-the-living?utm_source=emai...
 
Description Thinking Soils Presentation to NASA Ames 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact An invited presentation of Thinkings Soils to a team at NASA Ames to approx 20 research scientists and engineers interested in biotechnology for space missions.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018