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Super Cells: Building with Biology

by Nina Tandon and Mitchell Joachim
TED Books, NY, NY, 2014
103 pp. eBook, $1.99.

Reviewed by Michael Ricciardi
Seattle, Washington, USA

Part 'history of', part ‘how to’, and a good portion hype, Super Cells: Building With Biology, by Nina Tandon and Mitchell Joachim, is a fascinating, inspiring, and not-infrequently self-promoting/congratulating celebration of the “collision of Biology, Design and Digital Fabrication."

The book heralds a new movement referred to as bio-design, in which diverse designers appropriate the tools and methods of bio-engineering as well as a relatively new scientific discipline called synthetic biology (note: synthetic biology seeks to synthetically replicate cellular and biological processes and mechanisms for human ends) to ostensibly "transform" the whole of modern society and culture.
Bio-design, according to co-author and architect Mitchell Joachim, is the "cure for affluenza” and, in the long evolutionary path of human society, “is the next step toward a resilient harmony where human kind and Nature seamlessly blend.”

Taking us from Medicine (focusing on tissue engineering) and Architecture to Fashion, Food and Art/Entertainment, Super Cells -- a TED eBook -- is replete with momentous declarations like, “The time of building with living cells has arrived”(!) and generous pepperings of techno-hep buzz phrases like "disruptive technology" and "paradigm shift", along with a plethora of bio-techno neologisms and eco-ethical sentiments.

For those living without the Internet for the past half dozen years, the annual TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) conference has spawned innumerable 'TED talk" videos -- known for their provocative topics, cool visuals, and often over-hyped achievements and speculative predictions -- and, more recently, TED Books.

Super Cells, at a mere 72 pages in length (in the PDF version), is none-the-less rich with cellular experiments and explorations inspired by this new bio-aesthetic. The book is comprised of six chapters covering the spectrum of biodesign endeavors and innovations: 1] Medicine: Living Devices, 2] Architecture: Grow a Home, 3] Fashion: Cellular Atelier, 4] Food: Ranch in a Lab, 5] Art: Cellular Muses, 6] Entertainment: Biotic Games.

Chapters 2 and 5 are written by Joachim, the remainder by Tandon. The two styles of writing generally work well enough (like inter-woven branches) with Tandon's writing being a bit more technical and serious sounding, and Joachim's writing being a bit more fluid and "arty". The ebook's introduction manages to lay out the basic ideas of the book and enjoins the reader to "imagine the possibilities" and lists ”self-healing bridges, plentiful human body parts, high-tech fabrics" as just a sampling of the marvels awaiting us in this brave, new, bio-designed world. It almost sounds utopian. Indeed, a barely restrained eco-techno-utopianism pervades many of the chapters in the book.

For myself, the primary ecological and ethical concerns underlying biodesign are 1] engineering new strains of bacteria to serve the purposes of the designers (which raises several ecological concerns), and, 2] living up to the high ecological aesthetic /standard propounded by these various designers.

In regards to the former concern, we learn of an altered (bioengineered) and improved form of bacteria that Tandon (and Lee, presumably) use in their experiments, and later, Joachim mentions his desire to create a novel microbe that secrets the protein chitin (normally produced by arthropods), while bio-artist Brodyk uses a "transformed" (i.e., genetically altered)  bacterium . From the remainder of the text, we easily infer that other such engineered improvements (to microbes) are to come in the near future. I am not necessarily opposed to this in all cases (it's done rather routinely in bio-tech research labs).

However, many might have reservations about DIY genomic tampering of this kind (imagine the creative possibilities: basement 'citizen biologists' engineering new strains of bacteria). Although the authors do question the use and exploitation of super cells (as with Riedel-Kruse's patent), there is nary a mention of any ethical concern with the genetic and genomic tampering used to produce them. In regards to the latter concern, designer Suzanne Lee claims a ”reduced ecological footprint” in her cellular designs -- which I do not reject entirely -- if one is comparing her technique with conventional fashion design processes -- but to be rigorous and thorough, one must include the sourcing of every component in one's supply chain, and that must include the tech used to make or facilitate these bio-designed fashions. This is not a trivial thing, for often non-sustainable or ecologically harmful materials (“externalities”) lurk hidden even in the most high-minded and eco-conscious efforts. And while Lee asserts the non-necessity of having a lab (to produce cell tissues and by-products), many of these experiments are the result or product of bio-laboratory operations and equipment/technologies.

Last Updated 5th August 2013

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