One day I would like to have a long tube snaking in and out of the rooms of my house carrying a faintly glowing algal broth. I know it sounds strange, but these tiny creatures are bioluminescent, so eco-enthusiasts think they could make great, environmentally friendly lamps. They use energy from the sun, which makes them sustainable, and they are also responsive to their environment – glowing in response to vibrations – so the lights would turn on automatically when someone walks into a room.
I’m not sure how rare I am in wanting algae-based home lighting solutions, but I know there is at least one other person interested in the idea. I first heard about the concept from a young speaker named Rachel Armstrong at the Cheltenham Science Festival. I arranged to meet her in a cafe on London’s Tottenham Court Road. She seemed interesting, and anyway, I wanted to find out where I could get myself one of those groovy lamps.
Armstrong arrives 15 minutes late, but makes up for it by quickly explaining that she works with a company called Sustainable Now Technologies who are developing the lamps. Although they won’t be in production for a couple of years, the company’s director tells me when I call him a few days later. Luckily I soon discover that Armstrong has a philosophy which goes far beyond household appliances – and is much more interesting.
Although Armstrong previously trained as a medical doctor and is now a senior teaching fellow at the University of Greenwich’s school of architecture, she is currently doing research for a PhD. Her research topic sounds fascinating: how can we make buildings and cities more ‘living’; more responsive to their environment? And her approach is unusual: “I do a lot of observation,” she explains, “but because of the nature of what I’m observing, I don’t generate that much data. I mean, it’s not clear exactly what data should be recorded”.
If you take a look at Armstrong’s YouTube channel you’ll see what she means. Her studies have focused on the bizarre things that happen when you plop a few drops of three molar sodium hydroxide solution into some oil. When Armstrong adds the hydroxide and sets up her microscope to see what’s going on, she enters a strange world. Oil and water don’t mix, and so small globules of the basic solution are distributed through the oil as an emulsion. But they don’t just sit there. “They never fuse,” she says, “but they form colonies, worms and other strange structures”.
She can’t explain why it happens, but she says that it reveals an unappreciated facet of these types of system: they may not be alive exactly, but they can sometimes behave in a way which looks frightening as if they are. Through studying these simple, yet life-like droplets she hopes to gain an insight into how architectures form spontaneously in very simple systems.
Still images from movies recorded at 4x optical magnification. Armstrong says the 'colony' (top) is “actively exchanging chemical information” at the interfaces between the droplets.
Armstrong looks at these systems with an exploratory eye – she says she wouldn’t call herself a “proper scientist” – but she collaborates with people who are. Martin Hanczyc from the University of Southern Denmark is also interested in these life-like oil-water emulsions. Some scientists think that these very simple oil-in-water systems could have been how life first got started, since perhaps the most fundamental thing about a cell is that its contents are separated from the outside environment in the same way that these droplets are. Hanczyc works the other way round from Armstrong – putting oil into water, instead of water into oil. Once he has his emulsion he begins adding things in to see what happens.
What happens is that the droplets quickly start to become rather life-like. They buzz around petri-dishes, propelled by the decomposition of simple chemicals, seeking out areas of higher fuel concentration. Hanczyc even thinks his smart droplets have a shared ‘language’. According to a Nature News report he has “ shown that the droplets’ past actions can influence their future ones, which could be interpreted as a primitive form of memory.”
That sounds exciting, and it is, but Hanczyc’s work on the origins of life is scientifically mainstream. Using these primitive cells (or ‘protocells’) in architecture – as Armstrong eventually wants to – somehow sounds a bit far-fetched. But that’s where Armstrong’s unique position comes into play: “My role is to coax Martin out of his box”, she says. “I take the risks, so his reputation doesn’t take any hits. It’s about giving scientists an excuse – something to hide behind when they try out wacky ideas.”
There are lots of ‘visionaries’ out there interested in making buildings that are aligned with nature, but their ideas don’t amount to much. Armstrong is disparaging about these guys. “It’s not about just building something and then grafting in nature as an afterthought,” she says, referring to proponents of vertical farms. And – straying from the badly thought out to the downright weird – we both agree that Mitchell Joachim’s meat house is impractical, to say the least. That’s probably one reason why scientists like Hanczyc wouldn’t go it alone in the field of ‘living architecture’; apart from not having the time, it wouldn’t do to get lumped into a group with these ‘visionaries’.
But by now I’m hungry to hear about how we might actually use living architectures. These protocells are interesting and all, but I’m thinking: surely there’s no way they can ever be used as a building material? On the contrary, Armstrong has what I am quickly convinced is quite a good illustrative example of how she envisages living systems being used in architecture. It’s a project called ‘Future Venice’, that’s been experimenting with ideas that could save a city.
The problem with Venice is that it is sinking. The aquifers it was built over have been drained, which means there’s little support for the enormous weight of the Italian metropolis above. Armstrong has a plan to call in some protocells for help. The idea would be to use a protocell which has been designed to be averse to light. It would therefore move into shadowed areas under buildings; to the woodpiles on which the city’s foundations are built.
Here they would use dissolved carbon dioxide and minerals to manufacture a limestone skin around the wood poles, calcifying them and protecting them as well as spreading the load of the city across a wider surface area. “We already have protocells that can do this stuff,” says Armstong. But if you live in Venice – don’t worry – Armstrong isn’t going to be let loose in the city just yet. The project is still an idea at this stage, although she admits she has tried out “a few little experiments” with the protocells on the canal side.
One of Armstrong’s big concerns is that her ideas would just be ignored out of prejudice. The public perception of things like synthetic biology is not great (which is why she prefers to talk about ‘living architectures’). “But why shouldn’t we try using biology to do useful things,” she asks? “We have always been using biological things to do work – I mean horses were used as machines for a long time. It’s just that for the last 150 years we’ve been fixated on an industrial revolution. It’s about changing people’s philosophy, so that they are not scared of synthetic biology”.
A white accretion of an unidentified organism has collected underwater around this pole. Over time the deposit grows, attracting particulates and minerals which protect the wood. Designed protocells could enhance and accelerate this process.
One of the big plus points about living architectures is that they can respond to environmental pressures in a way that something like concrete can’t. This is especially important in Venice, a city which is subject to a particularly harsh and fast changing environment of tidal salt water. Not only that, but because the aquifers under the city were emptied during the industrial revolution the city is slowly sinking. According to Armstrong there have been several simulations running recently which aim to model what would happen if the aquifers under Venice were refilled.
“One of these changes might be that, actually, the water would start to recede,” explains Armstrong. “If that was to happen, then instead of creating a reef, this technology would create a kind of bio-concrete around the wooden stakes that hold Venice up. That’s important, because if the wet wood was exposed to the air it would start to rot.” So the biological accretion could function as more than just a load-bearing architecture; it would also protect the wood from rotting in the event of a fall in water levels.
This sort of thing isn’t going to happen overnight. No one is recommending that we empty tubs of synthetic ‘life’ into the canals of Venice next week. But the project acts as a beacon, guiding us to the sorts of ideas we can envisage in the future. “It’s a speculative project,” says Armstrong, “but it has real experiments: it has demonstrated some aspects of the possibilities this kind of work presents.”
In the end I’m left feeling that Armstrong is a bit of a heroine. Scientists have to justify their work with practical applications more and more. But this can lead to unwillingness to experiment with off-the-wall ideas – like using synthetic biology to save Venice. There are not many people out there like Armstrong who have the courage to think outside the box. In fairness, that’s probably how it should be: we can’t all spend our time dreaming up these zany schemes. But it would be a sad day indeed if there was no imagination left in science.
Images: Rachel Armstrong.