Interview: Nadine Bongaerts, Synthetic Biologist Bridging Science with Society
Nadine Bongaerts is a Dutch synthetic biologist and entrepreneur who is building bridges between science, business and society. Fascinated by engineering life at the smallest scale, she designs bacteria with new functions. In 2010, she joined a team of TU Delft students to participated in the worldwide synthetic biology competition iGEM (Internationally Genetically Engineered Machine) for which they developed DNA bricks that turned bacteria into minuscule oil-degrading cells. The work was recognized nationally and internationally and awarded with different prizes. Her current research focuses on using genetic engineering of bacteria to produce a pearl-like material with advanced mechanical properties.
Bongaerts is always looking for creative ways to share her knowledge and connect science to societal developments. This resulted in the co-founding of Biotecture (2011), a company for communication and education of Life Sciences. Since 2014, she is Global Community Director of Hello Tomorrow in which she leads a global network of scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs and investors to stimulate interdisciplinary collaborations that accelerate scientific findings to the market.
We recently talk to Nadine Bongaerts about the role and impact of synthetic biology, the gap between biosciences and society and the importance of communication to overcome the fear of new technologies.
Electricity From Plants
Imagine you are spending a nice sunny day at the park. Like all good Society of Simulations inhabitants, you want to take a picture of your friends and the amazing picnic you are having, to post it on your social networks. Bummer! The battery of your mobile phone is dead. And of course, there isn’t any electric socket anywhere near. This difficulty soon might be a problem of the past. Dutch technostarter Plant-e designs and develops products that use living plants to generate electricity.
Using Wood to Purify Water
Clean drinking water is vital for all human beings. But unfortunately, not everybody has access to safe and uncontaminated water. 3,4 million people, especially children, die annually from water-related diseases.
There are multiple solutions to provide clean drinking water, even in very remote areas. Some are useful, but most of them are also expensive. Using wood might be the most inexpensive, accessible and simple way to clean water, so far.
Incredibly Shrinking Humanity
Arne Hendricks will be presenting The Incredible Shrinking Man at the Next Nature Power Show on November 5th.
Social erosion, fisheries depletion, deforestation- for the 7 billion people on earth, we’re not just approaching an era of resource scarcity, we’re already there. Except for the lucky few, food, shelter, and even water can be expensive and in short supply. We have tried to address global problems with bigger technologies and bigger laws, but what if we decided to go small? Really small. How would the world change if every human was only 50 centimeters tall?
Take your transgenic kids to the CPNH
The Center for PostNatural History doesn’t house the dinosaurs or dioramas of your run-of-the-mill natural history museum. Instead, it’s the first museum dedicated exclusively to the study and preservation of ‘postnatural’ life: genetically modified organisms, lab animals, and cloned livestock. While the CPNH has been organizing traveling exhibits since 2008, its permanent exhibition space is due to open in Pittsburgh in the fall of 2011. While there have been several art shows centered on bioart and transgenic life, the Center may be the most science-minded endeavor to tackle the fuzzy boundaries between nature and culture.
Disaster Edens: The Anti-Tourist Attraction
Imagine your cruise to the Galapagos came with a ghoulish warning: “Your hair will fall out, your skin will blister, you’ll probably get cancer and your children’s children might be born deformed.” Not enough of a deterrent? How about “We’ll shoot you on sight”? If you’re a visiting tourist or a fisherman looking to poach some tuna or turtles, you might decide to hightail it back to the mainland.
Human culture normally creates areas amenable to other humans, but to few other species. Apartment blocks, parking lots, suburbs and Starbucks are pretty great for us, but miserable, even uninhabitable, to most creatures more specialized than a pigeon. ‘Involuntary parks,’ a term coined by Next Nature favorite Bruce Sterling, arise when warfare or industrial accidents upset the normal balance of human land-use. Soldiers shoot their enemies but not the birds. Radiation warnings will keep out the evacuated citizens, but not the bears and tigers.