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


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.


10 25 50
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 Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 11/2017 
End 10/2020
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