Mark Cantrell, Author

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News: Science Lays The Foundations For Silas Morlock's Macabre City

Posted by Mark Cantrell on December 3, 2016 at 9:20 AM

 Could Genetically Modified Bacteria Grow The Cities Of Tomorrow?


Researchers are looking to use genetically modified bacteria to grow the foundations for new buildings. It's like something straight out of his novel Silas Morlock, writes Mark Cantrell


WE'RE a far cry from the organic bio-engineered architecture prevalent in Terapolis, the foreboding world city in my novel, Silas Morlock, but a team of scientists are almost literally preparing to lay its foundations.


In the future, if their research pays off, then the foundations for buildings won't be poured as concrete, but will be grown by “pressure responsive” bacteria, of a species found in our gut – E Coli.


A team of scientists from Newcastle and Northumbria universities, led by architecture academic Dr Martyn Dade-Robertson, are investigating how they can create a new kind of material – so-called biocement – where engineered cells react to changes in the environment and strengthen the soil around them.


“This is really exciting research,” said Dr Dade-Robertson, who is a Reader in Design Computation at Newcastle University's School of Architecture, Planning & Landscape.


“We are trying to create a responsive material which could have broad architectural applications, for example creating foundations for buildings without needing to dig trenches and fill them with concrete.”


The team says they have identified dozens of genes in E. Coli bacteria that are regulated by pressures of 10atm (that's 10 times that of sea level). Using this, they are modifying the bacteria to create a ‘gene circuit’ that would enable the bacteria to respond to their environment by producing ‘biocements’.


The importance of this research might go much further, however. As part of the project the researchers have developed a new type of Computer Aided Design (CAD) application.


The application models pressures and stresses within a volume of soil under a building and maps different types of gene expression – predicting where the bacteria are likely to produce materials.


“The application hints at new way of doing design,” Dr Dade-Robertson added. “Imagine designing structures at the scale of a building by altering the DNA of microscopic bacteria cells.

“Such a technology would push well beyond the current state of the art and challenge a new generation of engineering designers to think at multiple scales from molecular to the built environment and to anticipate civil engineering with living organisms.”


There's only one thing left to say. That city: “It's alive!”

Thinking Soils: A synthetic biology approach to material-based design computation by Martyn Dade-Robertson, Helen Mitrani, Anil Wipat, Aurelie Guyet, Javier Rodriguez Corral (Newcastle University, UK) and Meng Zhang (Northumbria University, UK,) was presented at the ACADIA conference in Michigan, USA, on 28 October 2016.




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