Imagine a world where the milk you drink doesn't come from cows, but yeast. The fuel in your car isn't pumped from beneath the earth's crust, but is renewably produced by microbes. And your house was built from bricks cured with bacteria rather than heat.
These are the kinds of innovative solutions to environmental and industrial problems that are being tested. Some are already on the market, fueling the biotechnology boom.
"It's one of the fastest-growing industries in America," said Orkan Telhan, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design.
But the trouble with biotechnology is its complexity. That's where the Microbial Design Studio - a genetic engineering machine small enough to perch on a tabletop - comes in.
Telhan and his colleagues at their start-up, Biorealize, devised it to help more people solve problems using biology without requiring a biology degree, or the prohibitive amounts of money needed for standard lab equipment. It's part of a growing trend toward miniaturizing and automating technology to make it more user-friendly and drive innovation.
"If more people get involved, you will see more benefit," Telhan said.
"It's the same thing with software. In the beginning there were 10 companies making software, and the software was horrible. Now there are millions of people who can write code, and that's why the software keeps getting better and better."
Telhan said designers in particular "need to be able to work with organisms next to where they work with other materials. So this made us think, how can we package the different processes that are important in biological design in a small, low cost, portable [piece of] equipment, so you can see more designers using it this way?"
To make things even simpler, Microbial Design Studio users don't even have to get their hands dirty.
"You really don't interact with any living organism," he said. "You load your [prepackaged] bacteria and DNA in one end, and get your product in the other end."
Developed by Telhan, Penn teaching lab coordinator Karen Hogan, and Penn engineering alum Mike Hogan the machine is controlled by software that monitors the progress of the experiments. Multiple machines can be networked across many locations.
Designers and nonscientists can order food-safe DNA and microbes supplied by Biorealize, shipped by and disposed of through a middleman. Scientists can use existing gene sequences and microbes they have prepared to standardize, replicate, and coordinate their experiments with other labs.
The machine is a tool to develop "recipes" that will produce the desired product: proteins for medicine, yeast for food, and microbes for industrial design.
"There are infinite possibilities," Telhan said.
The Microbial Design Studio is being sent out to professionals and beginners this fall to get feedback.
Zenovia Toloudi, assistant professor of studio art at Dartmouth College, is interested in checking it out. She is an architect and artist seeking to create new materials to create more people-friendly spaces.
"Architecture around us is disconnected from the living, literally and metaphorically," Toloudi said. "Such poor design contributes to the potential monotony of the nine-to-five work week, exacerbating the need to get away from work, and a number of psychological and biological disorders." Biorealize also has its eye on the educational market.
Telhan and Yasmin Kafai, a professor at the Graduate School of Education at Penn, were just awarded a National Science Foundation grant to design an educational version of the Microbial Design Studio for high schools and community colleges. They will be holding workshops for students at the Franklin Institute to use the educational model.
"We want people to understand the technology, but we also want people to be a part of the process and what we decide to do with this technology in the future," said Jayatri Das, chief bioscientist at the Franklin Institute.
Testing of the educational models should begin in the spring. Biorealize hopes to offer them at under $1,000; professional models are expected to start at a few thousand dollars.
"This is a first-generation machine and we are still exploring its technical capabilities," Telhan said. "It certainly streamlines, and automates a lot of labor-intensive processes, but the platform needs a lot of testing, before becoming a robust and affordable product in the market."
Amino Labs, in Canada, is also working to get into this arena. It sells small, self-contained bioreactor lab kits that come with microbes, DNA, pipettes, and software instructions to learn the basics of genetic engineering.
"We have big aspirations, but it's still early," said cofounder Justin Pahara, comparing their products to the first home computers.
He sees the younger generation as the key to the revolution. "Once these get picked up by schools, [the field] will accelerate."