AL-HUSSEINI: Design at the intersection of technology and biology

"One is designed for nature; the other is designed by her." — Neri Oxman

Biological engineers support the Lord's work, equipped with two distinct tools: the chisel and the gene.

Biological engineering is the application of engineering fundamentals and design principles to biology. Neri Oxman, associate professor of media arts and sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab, attributes the recent rise of biological engineering to the confluence of four fields: computational design, additive manufacturing, materials engineering, and synthetic biology. Computational design allows the development of complex forms through simple code. Additive manufacturing creates new parts by adding material, not removing it. Materials engineering adjusts the properties and behaviors of matter. Synthetic biology rearranges genetic materials in original ways.

Biological engineering is a philosophical departure from its civil, mechanical, electrical, and nuclear counterparts. Biological engineers pursue the balance between assembly and growth, analysis and synthesis, and ultimately, the machine and the organism. Biological engineers seek neither to reinvent life, nor to ignore it, but to work alongside it. The chisel represents man-made technology. The gene represents nature. Engineers develop the chisel. Designers control how the chisel and the gene are combined. Ethicists help establish legal limitations to prevent transgressions of morality. Biological engineers must balance all three roles to be effective.

It is not always so magnificent. My first biomedical engineering professor challenged the class to share a device that represented the pinnacle of the field. Some answered prosthetics and I mentioned health information systems. The professor waved his hand as to dispel our grandiosities, and pulled out a Q-tip. The lesson was simple — the beauty of biomedical engineering lies in its simplicity and humility. Biomedical devices exist all around us, designed in such intuitive way that we rarely consider them to be just that. A toothbrush and floss may not appear award-worthy developments, but they have proven just as valuable as pacemakers and artificial kidneys.

Within the growing field of biological and biomedical engineers, some dedicated to iron-man suits and others to floss, exists a set of radical designers who constantly challenge engineering's deepest assumptions. Neri Oxman and her MIT-based team have approached biological engineering design in novel and noteworthy ways. Their work is not limited to medical practice, but encompasses fashion and architecture as well. Rather than introduce or refine everyday biomedical amenities, Oxman searches for methods to engage on nature's astounding complexity.

A fine example begins when her team first marveled at the intricacy of a silkworm's cocoon in 2013. Oxman says, "No level of additive manufacturing today gets even close to this [silkworm cocoon's] level of sophistication." The MIT team soon ran a series of experiments where a magnetic sensor is attached to the head of a silkworm. The silkworm is then placed in a variety of oddly shaped environments, and its cocoon electronically mapped. The results were impressive. The silkworm would develop a cocoon befitting the environment, whether it was curved, flat, or boxed.

Oxman's team decided to develop an octagonal "house" using silkworms. A robotic arm (the chisel) printed an enormous silk scaffold. 6,500 silkworms (the gene) were then introduced to the artificially printed, silk scaffold. Over the course of three weeks, the 6,500 silkworm would spin 6,500 kilometers of biological silk over the robotic silk, developing an incredible pavilion. Therein lies two merging fields; technology introduces a structure, and biology fills in the gaps. Oxman proclaims, "Here's to a new age of design…that takes us from a nature-inspired design to a design inspired nature..." Synthetic and organic have rarely seemed so similar.

Mahdi Al-Husseini is the volunteer organizer of TEDxDouglasville, a senior at Georgia Tech studying biomedical engineering and public policy, and a U.S. Army cadet.

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