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Synthetic Biology: Designing a “Metaphysical” Chicken
Rachel Armstrong   Jul 11, 2012   Ethical Technology  

The ultimate design material is one that understands what it is to become. By way of an example, I’d like to think about how we might design a chicken.

Think of the creativity of Nature – which, in very real terms can:

• Transform an acorn into a giant oak tree
• Change the colour of a chameleon
• Evolve scales into feathers so that a creature can soar.

Throughout the ages we have sought to understand how one thing becomes another – and it really isn’t such a difficult thing to do:

• Ivy can be trained over frameworks to grow arches
• Trees can be pleached to build fences
• Plants and animals can be selectively bred to particular requirements.

The capacity to design things so that they become something else is real – provided we choose the right materials to work with. And now we have sophisticated technologies that can help us do this.

Over the last two decades there have been significant developments in the science of synthetic biology – the design and engineering of living things – where we can work at such small scales and with such precision – that we can consider some of life’s processes to actually be technology. This has enabled us to change the course of natural development.

To use a very explicit example we could introduce jellyfish genes into pets such as, mice, fish and cats so they can glow under dark light.

Matter has never been so strange or creative.

Yet because when we design - we use living things in such a limited set of circumstances - such as, gardening and agriculture – we equate design with working with inert materials with predictable properties.

Synthetic biology is changing this by bringing living materials – which share some of the qualities of living things – into our everyday manufacturing and social spaces. It is influencing design practice so profoundly that it is even shaping our cities:

• Concrete can heal itself with the help of bacteria.
• Lichen painted on to building surfaces can help them self-regulate their temperature
• Algae grown in your shed can produce enough biofuel so that you may never need to take your family car to the fuel station again.

Yet, because of their unique characteristics, living materials need special consideration if we’re going to work with them ethically and practically.

It may take some time to decide that living materials are an appropriate design solution, and the issues may never be fully resolved. But once we have made the decision that their use is just then we need to think about practicalities.

By way of an example, I’d like to think about how we might design a chicken.

This is not a real chicken. It represents principles that may be applied to a whole range of living materials that may be of animal, plant, bacterial or very smart chemical origins – and could be used in desalination plants or domestic lighting.

When I use the term ‘chicken’ – I mean it in its metaphysical sense – about how an egg becomes a chicken – as a way of thinking about how one thing becomes another.

We can take a couple of different approaches to designing a chicken.

We can take something chicken-like and then tweak it so that it looks or behaves a little differently. This is the top-down approach. For example, we could design a featherless chicken that – obviously – does not need plucking!

The other approach we could use is to play the role of the egg and start with chicken ingredients. This is a bottom up approach. If you thought that designing a chicken was getting tricky then playing the role of the egg designer is vastly more challenging. Yet the bottom up approach has its advantages for designers who have a greater degree of freedom to play with chicken system variables. This increased degree of creativity in the system means that we may have to ask ourselves the perplexing question – when is our chicken not a chicken?

This is the moment that all designers across all media dread – the blank page. At this point anything could happen.

So we reach for the chicken manual and start to realise that building a chicken is very different to designing a static object. In fact, chickens aren’t objects at all – they are systems that change with time – and systems are complex. This means we have to be very clear about our intent. Is the chicken going to be a pet, or chicken nuggets? This not only helps us characterise the system but also select the right ingredients.

Every chicken has its own set of challenges and unique circumstances but there are some general technical considerations to address when working with living materials.

Scale: Designing a nano chicken is very different to engineering one the size of a house.

Sustenance: Living materials follow food and energy sources. Their needs change with time and as they grow. So we need to consider infrastructure. We can’t just build a chicken tissue culture any old how – we need the right nutrients, keep them free from predatory bacteria and even exercise or stimulate them.

Unpredictability: Living materials can surprise designers. When this happens we may need to answer the question – when is our chicken not a chicken – and come up with a plan B.

Time: Tissue culture time is not the same as biological time. Period.

Control: Living materials do not have a push button. Designers need to appreciate that they are co-authors of a process and that they are in the relationship for its duration.

The Inevitable. Designers need to consider what to do when their chicken is no longer viable. Can it be eaten? Can it be safely composted –or does it need special consideration?

The challenges for working with living materials are far from resolved – and I’ve not attempted to deal with them exhaustively – merely to offer a taste of the kinds of issues and challenges that designers need to face - as they start working with materials that are not obedient but – in a way – have a life of their own.

Working with living materials reminds us how creative the natural world is – and synthetic biology may just be able to help us tap into this potential – not to subordinate and consume it – but to use its astonishing power of transformation to innovate organically.

My design dream is that we can transform our resource-consuming industrial processes – into life-giving ecological ones.

And I think it is quite likely that while we’re working with living materials and exploring many different possibilities – that extraordinary solutions may even present themselves to us.

This essay is notes from a speech at TEDCannes

Rachel Armstrong is a TEDGlobal Fellow, and a Teaching Fellow at at The Bartlett School of Architecture, in England.


I propose we build a robot chicken and nominate Seth Green to spearhead the initiative.

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