2013-11-27

Dirt-Eating Carpet, Self-Cleaning Counters, And Living Walls: The Hacked Bacteria House

We don't need machines to build the automated home of the future, we can grow them right out of nature.

Someday, you might buy a kitchen countertop deliberately filled with bacteria, especially if these bacteria could do the cleaning for you.

Hacked bacteria, one of the fields of research coming out of the growing field of synthetic biology, could eventually do everything from changing color in the presence of peanuts to alert allergy-sufferers to finding and eating dirt so you don’t have to get out a sponge.

Designer Tashia Tucker is thinking about how the new world of bacteria-impregnated products and architecture might work. In an exhibit up at Drexel University as part of the Design Futures Lab, a year-long exploration of crazy-but-feasible ideas, she’s put together a few prototypes. These don’t actually work--the science isn’t quite there yet--but Tucker wants to show what’s coming.

Using a Nintendo gaming mat hooked up to an Arduino microprocessor and a projector, she simulated how a dirt-eating carpet could work. “The microbial floor project came about with the idea of being able to detect toxins in our environment, whether it’s pet dander or dust or dirt,” she explains. “It could find whatever type of toxin it’s programmed for and eat away at it off the surface. I show it as a flooring speculation, but it could be used for various types of surfaces in our environment.”

Another prototype demonstrated the kitchen countertop, which could be programmed to detect salmonella, pesticides, or genetically modified food. Tucker says that the same technology could also be used in hospitals--surgical tools or other medical equipment could change color to warn a doctor that they aren’t clean.

A bacterium that’s sensitive to light could be used to create a new wall coating that changes depending on your needs: When you want privacy, the bacterium could grow to create a screen, and when you want more light, it could shrink away.

How close are these ideas to reality? “Within maybe the next 15 to 20 years, we’ll start to see these surfaces much further developed and more accessible to the public,” Tucker says. The practical applications are growing quickly. In 2009, students developed a probiotic drink that can detect certain diseases when you drink it--and then change the color of your pee to alert you. The iterations keep coming.

As much as Tucker is interested in how the science and technology will work, she’s more interested in what it means for society.

“There are kind of scary things about this idea,” Tucker says. “We’re releasing this bacteria that we’ve changed and manipulated out into the world. What happens if they get out of control? How can we make sure they stay doing the job we want them to do?”

The public, she says, is also likely to have problems with the idea. “Even when we look at something like genetically modified food, there’s always the issue of what that means to the public. It sounds like a scary thing--is it or is it not? There’s always going to be a debate moving forward about culture manipulating nature, playing around with things that are naturally there. It’s going to be a sensitive issue.”

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