Josh Van Zak

Program in Media Arts and Sciences

Directed Biogenic Fabrication: Programming Cells and Their Ecosystems to Grow Civil Infrastructure

This thesis introduces and evaluates directed biogenic fabrication: a philosophical approach and technical framework for co-fabricating ecologically active civil infrastructure with living cells. I propose that imbuing our buildings and urban systems with life, or at least biologic capabilities, will enable tight interconnections between fundamental species occupying different infrastructural niches, resulting in urban ecosystems that develop closed-loop resource cycles and equilibrate our atmosphere. Within an ecosystem, the capabilities and behaviors of living things are neither good nor bad—their magnitudes are mediated by conditional scalars. These adaptations result from evolved symbiotic relationships between species occupying particular niches. The most fruitful mutualism often results from one organism living within or around another. In doing so, they become more fit in their environment and, in turn, make their environment more fit for them. In this vein, bone cancers are ideal fabrication systems with which to co-create living buildings, building materials, and products because of the overpowering abilities they have developed through millions of years of evolution. To name a few, they create and repair massive, functionally graded structures; outmaneuver our most powerful immune responses, environmental extrema, and drugs with minimal resources; and remodel their extracellular environments (ECMs) to optimize their proliferation and material production.

Under the right set of conditions, we can leverage these abilities to turn bone cancers into some of our most powerful conditional symbionts. I propose driving mutualism at an ecosystemic scale with osteosarcoma and chondrosarcoma co-cultures by directing their growth and material production into programmable, functionally graded structures. Given that cancer cells are so responsive to their environment and have no theoretical dimensional limit on their growth, creating primordial habitats—complete with sensor cocktails, mechanical and gas diffusion gradients, and embedded chemical and electrical signals—can enable designers, scientists, and engineers to utilize tumors as environmentally responsive fabrication agents. Looking toward the future, enveloped living cells can do more than simply make structures; thus, I would like to engineer living fabrication agents to heal their habitats; mass-produce drugs, biofuels, and antibodies to kill surface-adherent pathogens; and even convert waste to energy. In doing so, the design and functionality of our civil infrastructure will enable it to simultaneously adapt to its inhabitants’ needs and also participate in the construction and maintenance of its ecosystem by organizing into specific ecofunctional niches that cyclically produce, decompose, and recycle resources.

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