terraforming with 'EMBYo' 

 2016 // Royal College of Art + Imperial College London, Global Innovation Design

If humans are to terraform new planets, what kind of lifestyle should be established? Given the chance to start over, what would we do differently?

And what is the relationship between design and scientific advancement? What should it be? Does it change when scientists hold the ability to create, to design, new, synthetic lifeforms?

These questions form the starting point for the EMBYO project.

EMBYO is the result of a collaboration with students from Innovation Design Engineering (RCA/Imperial) and scientist from Imperial College London’s bio lab.

 

Vision

Industrialization of nature is at the foundation of consumer-culture, and with the rise of synthetic biology, the ability to further optimize biology to serve the lifestyle of humans increases. But what if we choose to look at it from a different perspective? Instead of industrializing biology, can we biologize industry? This vision of a new way of life, where humans and nature interact and mutually thrive in a truly symbiotic relationship, is paired with the future possibility of terraforming to form the heart of the EMBYO project. It is a radical speculation in using genetically engineered microorganisms to create an environment on Mars suitable for (a new type of) human habitat.

 

Co-culturing concept

The basic principle of the EMBYO concept is simple, yet wildly ambitious and technically demanding: send a load of biological material to Mars, which will then, feeding off the air in the Martian atmosphere, grow to into a bubble-like structure large enough for humans to inhabit. Upon arrival, the space-traveling humans will then modify the EMBYO bubble to suit their needs for water, food, light, etc. with additional microorganisms (brought from Earth) that can live and thrive in the EMBYO medium. The scientific premise for this is co-culturing. Currently a microorganism requires a very specifically tailored culture to grow and thrive, making co-culturing (multiple microorganisms living in the same medium) virtually impossible. However, with synthetic biology comes the potential for genetically modifying microorganisms, making co-culturing a feasible approach. Similarly, the EMBYO microorganisms are to be engineered to resist the increased radiation levels on Mars. 

 

A living environment

Life on Mars with EMBYO is radically different, yet strikingly similar to life on Earth. The life of the inhabitants of EMBYO depend on the life of their surroundings; but unlike on Earth, feedback from the environment is almost instantly detectable to the human senses, allowing EMBYO-dwellers to form a symbiotic relationship with their environment. Protecting its inhabitants from radiation, supplying food and water, decomposing waste, and producing an oxygen-rich climate, EMBYO establishes the survival basis for humans on Martian soil; living thus becomes synonymous with keeping the EMBYO microorganisms alive.

 

Realization

The concept of co-culturing was taken on as the main topic by the Imperial College iGEM team under the title Ecolibrium. Ecolibrium is the winner of the 2016 iGEM award, an international student prize for synthetic biology. 

 

Thanks to

Oron Catts (SymbioticA), Dr. Kirsten Jensen (Imperial College London), Carlos Garberi (Imperial College London), Victoria Geaney (Imperial College London)

 

Team

Yuchen Zhou, Aaron Koshy, Jun Kamei, Sandra Atakora