There are robots that look like people, and then there are robots, like the Ecobot III, that look nothing like humans but have our same biological needs: they have to eat, digest and excrete. The EcoBot III is a product of the partnership between scientists at Wessex Water and the Bristol Robotics Laboratory. This robot works in a sewage treatment system and feeds off sewage, with an artificial stomach made ??up of fuel cells that run on human waste.
Though not yet as functional as biological proteins, these artificial proteins created by physicists at the University of Vienna are the first versatile and modular examples of a fully artificial protein. Their method involves the self-assembly of simple particles into polymer chains. By controlling the interaction between the beginning and end of the polymer chain they are able to “lock” the folded end result.
Proteins are the molecular machines that form the building blocks of all living organisms, and underlie complex bio-molecular processes within our bodies. From muscle contraction to DNA replication, proteins are involved in uncountable biological activities. This research presents a foundation on which novel applications can be built, from material sciences to new forms of drug delivery. One day, these bionic proteins might very well be integrated into our own biology.
Normally, when we select for characteristics in fruits and vegetables, it’s to bring them closer to some modernist ideal: corn that’s sweeter, lettuce that’s crisper, cucumbers that are perfectly green and straight. However, a new strain of tomato out of the UK may soon topple the spherical red fruit from its iconic position. These purple GM tomatoes owe their unusual hue to a dark purple-blue pigment called anthocynanin. Not only does this antioxidant double the shelf life of tomatoes in the supermarkt, it also extends the lives of mice that are genetically predisposed to cancer. A tomato that cuts down on food waste and the incidence of cancer? Even if pasta and pizza will never look the same, maybe it’s time to pass the purple.
Right now, one of the reasons that robots and other artificially intelligent devices cannot qualify as living beings is their inability to self-repair. However, a recent breakthrough from the Caltech High-Speed Integrated Circuits laboratory have brought us one step closer to the reality of machines that can cure themselves after being damaged.
We use antibiotics for medical treatment, but the presence of antibiotics in drinking water is harmful to us and to our environment. Currently, activated carbon is used to filter out harmful antibiotics, but the effect is not perfect. A team at the University of Cincinnati has now developed and tested a new filter made of two bacterial proteins which can remove almost twice as much antibiotics as activated carbon, using only water and direct sunlight.
Compared with activated carbon filters, the bacterial protein system offers several improvements. Firstly, the new protein filter can selectively absorb antibiotics. It employs a protein pump called AcrB, a selective “garbage disposal” for the bacteria that cannot get clogged with organic matter. Secondly, direct sunlight powers the bacterial protein system. A light-driven bacterial protein called Delta-rhodopsin supplies power for the AcrB. Moreover, these bacteria can even be used to extract antibiotics for recycling, and may even eventually be used to filter our heavy metals and hormones.
Typically the impact of humanity on plant life is not always positive: Deforestation, decrease of diversity, soil pollution. Doom and gloom are all around. Hence, our delight to learn there are also people dedicating their time and energy to the expansion of plant life. Surely if they do it in such remarkable ways.
Astrobiologist Dr. Louisa Preston and Designer Vanessa Harden propose to build a garden on Mars. Thats not easy. One would need a gardening robot, fitted plant species and some kind of dome structure for the plants to grow in. These two young women now started a kickstarter campaign to realize their project.
Arguably, we owe it to our fellow carbon bases plant species, to employ our space rockets to their benefit, helping them to inhabit new worlds. Additionally, the astro plants may also provide human space travelers in their nutritious needs.
Go to the kickstarter campaign.
Somewhere between a vat of expensive face cream and a baby Neanderthal lies a probable future for synthetic biology. While synbio start-ups – large and small – struggle with the reality of scaling up microscopic cellular factories into profitable business models, stories of DIY anti-cancer research, Neanderthal cloning, limitless ‘green’ kerosene, and tumor-killing bacteria are told as outcomes of a likely future where humans have full control over biology.
Over the last decade, many diverse interests have contributed to this ambition of an easy-to-manipulate biology, as the field of synthetic biology has spread around research labs all over the world. Scientists, engineers, policymakers, industrialists, space agencies, politicians, and even designers are constructing a future defined by the grand rhetoric of a world-changing, world-saving technology.
For more than eight years artist Koert van Mensvoort has been working on a project to redefine our concept of nature. Through his platform Next Nature he has published books, held talks, ran workshops, maintained an active blog, and even developed a hoax, all in effort to communicate that there is no absolute nature, but that technology and nature are deeply intertwined; a biosynthetic nature so to speak. Can the development of a Gillette razor be considered in Darwinian terms of evolution? Is the fake nature of an indoor ski slope any less legitimate than the Alps? By fundamentally shifting the way we conceive nature, he believes we will be better able to cope with the oncoming climatic and environmental challenges ahead.
This interview is reprinted from Volume magazine #35: Everything Under Control.
Four years ago we wrote about a vision to create bioluminescent trees that would replace streetlights. This dream is getting just a little bit closer, now that a team of Stanford trained synthetic biologists led by Antony Evans launched a Kickstarter campaign to grow glowing plants.
Using Genome Compiler software, the team is ready to input bio-luminescence genes into a mustard plant and have it be naturally glowing. Natural lighting with no electricity. Hypernature ahoy!