Synthetic creatures could "save nature"
says Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg

| 19 comments
 

Synthetic living creatures would be released into the wild to save endangered species and clean up pollution under this futuristic proposal by designer Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg (+ slideshow + interview). Update: this interview is featured in Dezeen Book of Interviews, which is on sale now for £12.

Bioremediating synthetic slug by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg
The Slug-like Mobile Bioremediating Device emits alkali to neutralise acidic soil

Called Designing for the Sixth Extinction, the project is designed to trigger debate about how artificial organisms could be used to solve environmental problems.

Synthetic creatures could "save nature" says Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg
The porcupine-like Autonomous Seed Disperser spreads seeds to increase biodiversity

"I'm looking at how we could do rewilding using synthetic biology," said Ginsberg. "The idea is that we could preserve or maintain a state of nature using synthetic organisms that are designed to save other species."

Synthetic creatures could "save nature" says Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg
The Puffball-like Self-inflating Antipathogenic Membrane Pump lives on oak trees and releases spores that treat sudden oak death

Ginsberg has proposed four new species, including a slug that leaves a trail of alkali to neutralise acidic soil, and a porcupine with sticky rubber spines that would help disperse seeds of threatened plants.

Synthetic creatures could "save nature" says Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg
Bioaerosol Microtrapping Biofilm lives on the surface of leaves and traps airborne pollutants

There is also an artificial puffball that kills tree-damaging pathogens when it bursts; and a biofilm that grows on leaves and absorbs pollutants and viruses, safely removing them when the leaves fall in autumn.

Synthetic creatures could "save nature" says Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg
Image showing all four synthetic creatures co-existing in a forest

The creatures would be designed, patented and produced by corporations in the same way that industrial products are developed today. The corporations could use the creatures as a form of "biodiversity offsetting", to make up for environmental damage caused by their activities.

Designing for the Sixth Extinction by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg
Detail of forest showing synthetic slug and puffball

"The idea is [to ask whether we could] be designing organisms like we're designing products now to do something like save nature," Ginsberg told Dezeen.

Synthetic creatures could "save nature" says Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg

The creatures would be engineered to contain a genetic "kill switch" that would prevent them from over-breeding and creating new environmental problems.

Synthetic creatures could "save nature" says Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg

The project was developed for an exhibition co-curated by Ginsberg about synthetic biology called Grow Your Own… Life After Nature at the Science Gallery Dublin.

Synthetic creatures could "save nature" says Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg

The exhibition, which opened last week and runs until 19 January 2014, presents a series of installations by designers, artists, scientists and others that explain and provoke debate about synthetic biology -  an emerging discipline that involves designing and creating biological products.

Synthetic creatures could "save nature" says Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg

Ginsberg explained the principles behind the discipline in a video interview we recorded at Design Indaba in Cape Town earlier this year.

Ginsberg said that the ideas explored in her installation are plausible. "There's a scientist who I showed this to and she said it's already happening," Ginsberg said. "It's happening not at the level of organisms but with bacteria; the concept of releasing things into the wild to preserve nature. This is not a hidden new world, it's actually happening."

Here's an edited transcript of the interview with Ginsberg:


Bioremediating synthetic slug by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg
Portrait- Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg

Marcus Fairs: Tell us about the project.

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg: This project is called the Sixth Extinction and its commissioned for Grow Your Own… Life After Nature at the Science Gallery Dublin, [an exhibition] about synthetic biology. The project is investigating the relationship between biodiversity, conservation and synthetic biology.

At the moment some conservationists argue that at the moment we're undergoing the sixth extinction period. So the dinosaurs dying out was one of them, and number six is human-caused: the death of mammals and biodiversity.

I went to a conference at the beginning of this year called the Future of Nature where the conservation community had come to the synthetic biology community and said: we need to talk. Can we actually design organisms that could help biodiversity? So I was really interested in how this could be a design brief in itself - of making this relationship clearer.

So in this future scenario, I'm looking at how we could do rewilding using synthetic biology. The idea is that we could preserve or maintain a state of nature using synthetic organisms that are designed to save other species. So there are four different species that would be potentially designed by scientists and patented by corporations, maybe as part of biodiversity offsetting, so [they're] ruining environments somewhere else but releasing these things to preserve nature.

Marcus Fairs: What are the creatures you're proposing?

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg: We've got four different things. These [pointing at the image of the forest] are bio-remediating slugs that reduce acidity levels in the soil to make it more hospitable. Soils get really acidic due to pollution; their slug trails are very alkali and they neutralise the soil.

The puffball-type mushrooms are actually membrane pumps that would suddenly erupt on the tree thats been infected with the pathogen that causes sudden oak death. So they're very carefully designed pumps which would then inject serum into the tree.

The little creatures like porcupines or hedgehogs are mobile seed-dispersers. Their rubbery spines catch seeds in their fur and disperse them around.

In the distance you see that some of the leaves are yellowish and that's a film-like infection on the trees that's trapping glutens.

The idea is [to ask whether we could] be designing organisms like we're designing products now to do something like save nature. In the exhibition, all the organisms are described with patent application descriptions so it's very instrumentalised. We don't talk about these as living things; they're really machines. So they're really opening up that whole space that hasn't really been explored very much yet about what it might be like to preserve whilst inventing.

Marcus Fairs: So in this scenario, how do these creatures come into being?

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg: They've been invented in a laboratory; designed, tested and released. So I've designed them to work in closed ecological ecosystems. Under the patent applications you see that each one has a kill switch designed into it so it can only copy itself a number of times and then it dies.

Marcus Fairs: So they can't take over?

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg: No. The idea is that we would have this perfect synthetic nature existing, one to save the other and whether that's actually possible is up for debate.

Marcus Fairs: How plausible is this?

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg: There's a scientist who I showed this to and she said it's already happening. It's happening not at the level of organisms but with bacteria; the concept of releasing things into the wild to preserve nature. She said you're too close to reality.

I'm not proposing this as the future but it's meant to highlight these questions. It's a vehicle to highlight these questions as a design project and now the idea is to take it back to scientists and start the conversation going.

Marcus Fairs: This scenario is about the natural world; what about the human world? Could we invent creatures that look after us?

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg: Well this is research that's going on. There is research already going on into bacteria that serve as hard drives, that can store data. It's never going to compete with a silicon computer but that it can go into a completely different space like our bodies. The therapeutics of the future would be little mini biological hard drives that can actually count how many times your cells divide, to work out if you have cancer. to novel probiotics,

I imagine that's what will come first, drinking stuff whether it makes our poo smell good or whether it has novel health properties. We already eat so much that is genetically modified that we don't know about. This is why this is a really interesting space to open up because if you're a vegetarian, you're eating GM all the time because probiotics are produced by bacteria. This is not a hidden new world, it's actually happening.

  • James

    This is a great idea but will other animals try and eat the slug? If they are synthetic, would it be better to make them look man-made rather than like creatures that already exist to avoid this?

  • MB

    Definitely an interesting idea, but to say it would ‘save’ nature sits uncomfortably with me.

    Humanity is fixated on this idea that the natural environment is a stable, balanced system that can somehow be maintained. However, the opposite is much closer to reality. Since the world began it has been in a constant state of environmental change. Populations rise and fall based on countless factors, some we can control, some we can’t.

    Like many others, this project seems to want to stop that process of change. Humans can’t and don’t really perceive time very well, particularly when thinking about the future. So it’s in our nature to want to maintain the status-quo, in case things get worse, when actually the possible changes that might occur otherwise are infinite, both good and bad.

    My gut feeling is that if synthetic creatures such as these were to exist, they would cause far more harm than good as we can’t possibly begin to comprehend how they may affect the environment. And even if they do work and preserve what we have, do we really want to halt change in the natural world?

  • camille

    This is a nice “Nausicaa Valley of the Wind” like idea but as always, what if the original idea is diverted for profit? Like spreading living creatures (it is certainly happening already with bacterias) to modify the environment for selling other products to save it? See this link to get what I mean: http://consciouslycorporate.com/2011/01/07/part-1-creating-problems-to-sell-solutions/ )

    Furthermore, how can we predict how this kind of “unnatural creatures” can interact with nature ?

  • Not Daniel Brown

    They could be 3D printed as well!

  • mb4design

    Fascinating conceptually. I like the possibility of dialogue this presents. The approach seems to highlight our consumerist human condition of additive consumption rather than balanced. (I’m fat. Give me a pill I can take with meals to make me slim.) Could this work on the humans causing the stress on the planet? Birth control perhaps?

  • Robror51

    Obviously, the author is not familiar with Love Bugs! I could think of nothing worse than to create living creatures that have a targeted impact on the environment, no matter how well designed or intended. There will be unintended consequences.

    As we already know, humanity and everything it artificially creates is the cancer that is killing the planet one innovation at a time.

  • Alan

    What a stupid idea! Nature is already saving itself. Humans: think about saving yourself when the smog will start to kill you! Ops maybe it has already started…

  • PTimble

    There is no way this could go wrong…

    • bionaut

      Haha! :) It reminds me NASA’s experiment to create artificial biosystems. They also stuffed an enclosed space full of “nature” with some humans and other diversity. In no time humans got sick and the termites chose to leave by chewing through the concrete foundation :)

  • ikrisztian

    This is good for people’s conscience who could feel good after doing all that wrong to the environment. It’s a wrong direction. We just get further from ourselves. From nature.

  • Erik

    Another Floris Kaayk?

  • sickof$”%^*$T

    Why don’t you all just stop pilling so much s*** around. Far easier isn’t it? No need then for fantasies about government subsidising corporations or for some of the new-age crap in the comments above (or below, depends how you’re reading them).

  • Alex

    Saving Nature? ‘Nature’ doesn’t need saving, it needs a break from human born interference. I am very, very sceptical.

  • Adrian Krężlik

    They do exist in Mexico! Check the link: http://www.plantasnomadas.com/

  • fast lam

    Is this going to be like Pokemon, where every creature on the planet is synthetic?

  • kkkkkkkk

    Don’t play God, because you will do what man does best and screw it up more.

    • alex

      What are you talking about? Each and every one of us are God, and those who are mindful have the ability to create the reality they want.

  • bioscoop

    There’s also an issue of energy here. Perhaps they can be powered by nano steam engines.

  • Sacha

    Organic designing would be a nice and great idea, if the world was mainly managed and controlled by responsible and good willing people, but it is not yet! So that humans would have made the idea become worth damaging, everything before any positive designing will appear! Better forget it and save the world by make those bad people better.