How Protocells Will Create the Next Wonders of the World 

When we combine dynamic chemical and biological systems in a technological capacity, something thrilling happens. We may even prevent Venice from sinking

By Rachel Armstrong

Like Janine Benyus, Rachel Armstrong also studies the technological marvels of nature — and sees opportunities where "natural computing" can rethink how we engineer and manufacture materials, how we design offices and homes, and how we can evolve into technologists with a much more intimate connection to nature's biology and chemistry — not just through ones and zeroes. With breakthroughs she calls protocells, Armstrong argues that we need to reconsider architecture made of inert materials and recreate architecture that grows itself.

Humans have been around for more than 200,000 years, but only now are we beginning to understand just how intimately our health and our future are connected to the biosphere that surrounds us.

Our prosperity, as individuals and as a society, does not depend simply on what happens within our own skin and walls; it is interwoven with the fate of many other natural systems around us. The rainforests of the earth cover just 6 percent of our planet, yet produce about 40 percent of our oxygen; the Amazon rainforest alone produces more than 20 percent of the world’s oxygen. These great wooded expanses are as vital to our everyday breathing as our own lungs. By considering ourselves as interconnected ecological beings, then we can open up new spaces for innovation.

When chemistry meets technology

Physically, our bodies are an elaborate ecology of interdependent agents — the bacterial biome, inorganic minerals, prosthetics, implants and even subatomic particles. Indeed, on a cell-for-cell basis, our body is mostly bacterial. Because of their tiny size, however, bacteria make up only 2 to 3 kilograms of our body mass. Yet, biotechnological research, such as DNA sequencing technologies that have identified bacterial sequences in our genome, has highlighted the importance of our bacterial biome in our everyday lives. Bacteria digest our food, make essential fats that regulate our mood, and even provide immunity against invasive bacteria that could harm us. What else can they do for us?

By considering ourselves as interconnected ecological beings, then we can open up new spaces for innovation.

Let’s conduct a little experiment: Suppose we add a drop of a strong alkali, such as sodium hydroxide, to a small dish of olive oil. Within seconds a lifelike structure emerges, composed of tiny, lively droplets that measure around a millimeter in diameter. Each droplet behaves in a dynamic way and its outputs are the result of many parallel interactions. The dynamic droplets may soon be entirely transformed by their interactions, and can evolve quickly and dramatically. In addition, these dynamic droplets do not need an external energy source for them to perform work.

Through this experiment we have demonstrated that a simple chemical experiment (adding the alkali to the olive oil) can have dramatic technological outcomes (the droplets mutate based on the reaction). Dynamic droplets possess unique qualities, such as robustness, environmental sensitivity, resilience and creativity. Man-made machines, meanwhile, must be programmed to attain similar skills.

So how do we exploit this chemical system as a technical system? One solution may be in using so-called natural computing techniques — a term derived from Alan Turing’s interest in the computational powers of nature — which combine the operations of chemistry and biology. Natural computing is an emerging field of science wherein chemical and biological systems behave in a technological capacity, requiring no energy or programming on our part. Using it, we can develop new ways of designing and engineering ecologically.

Transforming our cities

One of the most interesting areas of natural computing exploration is in improving the sustainability of our cities. A great example of this is Future Venice, a research experiment that aims to grow an artificially engineered, limestone-like reef under Venice to slow that fabled city’s relentless sinking.

Venice is situated in northeastern Italy, where the Po delta meets the Venice lagoon by the Adriatic Sea. Built on soft soils, with foundations supported by woodpiles, the city is periodically flooded by high waters and regularly desiccated by the sun. This ferociously unstable environment creates terrible conditions for a fragile architecture. Venice has weathered its environment for three centuries, but the city continues to erode.

The Future Venice Project proposes to grow an artificial limestone reef underneath the city's fragile foundations using protocells.

Photo: Christian Kerrigan

Future Venice is an architectural project that proposes to couple the synthetic activity of artificial and natural systems within the lagoon to sustainably reinforce the foundations of the city. The key element of this proposal is to apply “living technology,” namely protocells, which are chemical agents that behave in lifelike ways without having the full status of being “alive.” Protocells do not have a central biological program, such as DNA, to guide them, yet they can act as a dynamic fabric and be used to grow an artificial limestone reef underneath the Venetian foundations. The reef spreads the point-load of the city over a much broader base, thickening up the narrow woodpiles on which it rests, and stops the city from sinking so quickly into the soft delta soils on which it was founded.

The technology takes the form of “smart” droplets that are based on the chemical dynamics of oil and water. Although they are autonomous, the droplets can be programmed using a chemical language to connect with the lagoon’s impurities, such as carbon dioxide and dissolved minerals. This action in turn produces a kind of “biocrete” that, under the right conditions, may spread the weight of the city over a much broader base — effectively standing it on platform boots, rather than the stiletto-heeled woodpiles that it currently rests upon.

The protocells may also provide other benefits, such as improving the water quality in the lagoon and providing rich micro-environmental niches for Venice’s marine wildlife to thrive in. Different kinds of droplets may provide a rich, dynamic material that enables the city to no longer be a passive object in its struggle for survival but an active, “living” participant in co-constructing its future alongside humans.

Natural computing therefore addresses the longevity of the city by preventing it from sinking so quickly into the soils and positions the concept of sustainability as a function of ecological growth and material adaptation — rather than as an exercise in industrial resource conservation.

Biology taking the place of machines

Future Venice also demonstrates that natural computers require a unique set of infrastructures if they are to be applied in other contexts, such as using composting under floors to provide heating for homes. They also need to be “fed” by the same kind of resources that nurture us. In the case of compost, it needs to be supplied with oxygen to produce heat, which provides a control mechanism that can be operated through vents. In other words, natural computers can only thrive when they receive a nourishing flow of matter through elemental media, such as air, earth, water and heat.

With the appropriate elemental infrastructure, it may be possible to extend the ecologies that support us into our living spaces. For example, new kinds of natural computing systems with a range of metabolic functions could be introduced into our homes, which perform work that we usually associate with machines. Perhaps we could imagine these technologies as organic dialysis machines that use biological and chemical technologies to provide vital ecological functions, such as producing heat, filtering water or fixing carbon dioxide.

Natural computing positions the concept of sustainability as a function of ecological growth and material adaptation — rather than as an exercise in industrial resource conservation.

Because they are directly contributing to the health of our living spaces, and by implication improving our own well-being, we could think of these natural computing systems within our buildings as architectural “organs.” These structures could be situated in underused sites in buildings, such as cavity walls and under floors, but they could also be highly visible. One example is the Phillips Microbial Home, a speculative project that imagines home appliances being run by bioprocesses, rather than mechanical devices. These bioprocessing systems transform waste products into useful substances.

The strategic development of architectural organs may not only provide us with supplemental physiological support but also enrich the ecological systems that support us, systems from which we have become increasingly distanced in our urban environments. Instead of thinking about our living spaces as the architect Le Corbusier did — as machines for living in — through natural computers we can now think of our homes as ecologies for living in.

By considering ourselves as interconnected ecological beings, we can open up new spaces for innovation that may radically alter the industrial pathway that we currently tread. Using natural computing techniques, we have the potential to produce a portfolio of diverse approaches for a new platform for human development that is not parasitic on Earth’s processes, but enlivens the natural world.

Rachel Armstrong is Professor of Experimental Architecture at The School of Architecture, Planning & Landscape, University of Newcastle, England. She is also a 2010 Senior TED Fellow. Rachel is a sustainability innovator who investigates a new approach to building materials called living architecture, which suggests it is possible for our buildings to share some of the properties of living systems. She collaboratively works across disciplines to build and develop prototypes that embody her approach.


Top photography by Christian Kerrigan